Nets Champion “Revolutionary” Bay State Mandated Insurance, Tout National Model

A day after the Democratic legislature of Massachusetts passed a mandated health insurance plan, and tellingly the day of a front page New York Times story (“Massachusetts Sets Health Plan for Nearly All”) touting the bill which Republican Governor Mitt Romney plans to sign, all three broadcast network evening newscasts led Wednesday by championing the proposal and characterizing it as a national model. ABC and NBC provided critics with just a sentence while CBS ran a totally one-sided promotional story. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas teased: "Tonight, one state's revolutionary attempt to create universal health care. If a state can do it, why can't the country?" Vargas claimed: “Most people think medical costs are too high and would like a universal insurance system to cover everyone.” Reporter Nancy Weiner soon trumpeted: “Many experts say after years of failed attempts in several states, and by the federal government the Massachusetts version of universal health care, which stresses individual responsibility, could serve as a national model."

CBS Evening News anchor Russ Mitchell celebrated the government mandate, “Imagine this: Virtually everyone guaranteed health insurance coverage. It's happening in one state, and it could be a model for the rest.” Over on the NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams dreamed: “Health insurance for everybody. Is it possible? Tonight, one state about to make it the law. If it works, will the same thing happen where you live?” He soon wondered: “If this works, why not the rest of the nation? It's been called 'mandatory health care,' 'universal health care,' and, while it has its critics, it's also being called a potential and revolutionary solution to a huge problem: the millions of uninsured Americans.” (Transcripts follow.)

In the Massachusetts plan, individuals who don't buy insurance and companies which do not provide it, will face tax penalties and fines while the poor will go on the state dole with the state paying for their health insurance, thus making the state a major purchaser of private health insurance. Wednesday's Washington Post, like the New York Times, put the passage on its front page. The story, "Mass. Bill Requires Health Coverage: State Set to Use Auto Insurance As a Model," noted the bill passed by Politburo margins: "154 to 2 in the House and 37 to 0 in the Senate."

In a “Policy Analysis” report issued Wednesday, “Individual Mandates for Health Insurance: Slippery Slope to National Health Care,” the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner warned: “An individual mandate crosses an important line: accepting the principle that it is the government's responsibility to ensure that every American has health insurance. In doing so, it opens the door to widespread regulation of the health care industry and political interference in personal health care decisions. The result will be a slow but steady spiral downward toward a government-run national health care system.”

Of course, that potential is what excites journalists.

In the overwhelming positive stories, ABC's Nancy Weiner included one soundbite from a critical small businesswoman and NBC's Mike Taibbi offered a sentence about the burden on small business and fears the middle class will end up subsidizing the new system. CBS's Trish Regan didn't bother with any critical voice or cite any downside.

Both ABC's Weiner and CBS's Regan went out of their way to emphasize how the plan is supposedly not liberal. Weiner featured a representative from the Center for Studying Health System Change who insisted: "This was not the liberals cramming something down everyone's throats because Governor Romney, a Republican, was very much a leader." And viewers of CBS's Regan piece heard this from someone with the Institute for Health Policy Solutions: “It would be a mistake to think of this as some crazy liberal pinko kind of Massachusetts, 'Taxachusetts,' the important thing is this is a moderate proposal." (Both of those featured, from groups which clearly find the current health care system deficient, were quoted in the April 5 New York Times article.)

Transcripts of the April 5 ABC and CBS stories, as well as NBC's introduction, as collected by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:

ABC's World News Tonight:
The tease from anchor Elizabeth Vargas: "I'm Elizabeth Vargas. Tonight, one state's revolutionary attempt to create universal health care. If a state can do it, why can't the country?"

Vargas opened: "Good evening. We begin with a bold experiment in health insurance that could change the way you pay your medical bills. After terrorism and the war in Iraq, health care is the major concern for Americans. Most people think medical costs are too high and would like a universal insurance system to cover everyone. Forty-five million people in the U.S. have no insurance [number on screen], and repeated attempts by the federal government to come up with a solution have all failed. Which is why the state of Massachusetts is getting so much attention tonight. ABC's Nancy Weiner reports from Boston."

Nancy Weiner: "Under a new bill, Massachusetts will become the first state in the country to require all of its residents to have health insurance."

Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA): "We have found a way to get every citizen health insurance."

Weiner: "With the new system, residents who make less than $9,500 a year will get free health insurance -- no premiums, no deductibles. Families with low incomes but above the poverty line will pay premiums on a sliding scale. But still, no deductibles. And for the fast majority of residents who do have health insurance, lawmakers predict cutting the roles of the uninsured will bring down premiums for everyone. Forty-year-old Faith Burdell, who is legally blind and can't work, says health costs currently eat up most of the little money she has."

Faith Burdell, Massachusetts resident: "I think I'd be able to afford a gallon of milk, whereas before I wasn't able to always get a gallon of milk at the store."

Weiner: "The new law would require small business owners who don't provide their employees with health insurance to pay into a state fund, $300 per worker."

Betty Ann Wasilunas, Hair Salon owner: "You want me to, you know, start picking up people's insurance? I think it's out of this world. I think it's crazy."

Weiner: "People who can afford health insurance but refuse to get it, will get penalized, too, with higher income taxes. Many experts say after years of failed attempts in several states, and by the federal government-"

Hillary Clinton in 1990s: "We want our health care system back."

Weiner: "-the Massachusetts version of universal health care, which stresses individual responsibility, could serve as a national model."

Paul Ginsburg, Center for Studying Health System Change: "This was not the liberals cramming something down everyone's throats because Governor Romney, a Republican, was very much a leader."

Weiner concluded from in front of the gold domed Massachusetts state house: "How does the state plan to pay for all this? With federal Medicaid funds. Plus, the $1 billion a year the state spends already on free care for the uninsured."

Vargas then turned to George Stephanopoulos and Dr. Tim Johnson. To Johnson, she asked: "Tim, how might the Massachusetts plan affect the cost and the quality of medical care in that state?"

Tim Johnson was unsatisfied: "Well, we really don't know, and that's a key question. I'm proud of my state for trying to take on this enormous problem, but there's not much in the pudding that addresses medical costs, that is the costs of those who deliver the care, and the quality of that care. And in the long run, any reform bill that does not address those two issues is really no reform at all. So we've got a lot to learn to see how this works out in real life."

Vargas: "So, very quickly, if this plan would work nationally on a federal level, what about in other states individually? Could it work in other places?"

Johnson: "Well, I think the conditions that George pointed out are going to make it difficult for many other states to do it. Massachusetts has a very low number of uninsured and a long history of liberal social policies. So I think it's quite a unique situation. But other states are going to have to try it because, as George points out, the federal government is not doing anything."


CBS Evening News:
Russ Mitchell, in opening teaser: "Good evening. I'm Russ Mitchell. Imagine this: Virtually everyone guaranteed health insurance coverage. It's happening in one state, and it could be a model for the rest. So we'll begin there tonight."

Mitchell, with “Massachusetts” next to one side of his head and “Insuring Everyone” on the other side, led: "Health care costs are rising by the day, and more than 45 million people in this country have no insurance to cover it. Now, one state is doing what no other state or the federal government has been able to do: Provide near-universal health coverage. The Massachusetts legislature approved it with overwhelming bipartisan support. And it could become a model for the rest of the country. Here's Trish Regan."

Trish Regan: "President Clinton promised it but did not deliver, states have wrestled with it unsuccessfully for decades, and now Massachusetts has apparently done it. It's about to become the first in the nation to provide nearly universal health coverage. Under a bill approved by the legislature, the state will require every citizen to be insured. Governor Mitt Romney pushed for the program."

Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA): "I thought it would be impossible."

Regan: "He considers health coverage essential, like car insurance."

Romney: "Well, when people drive a car, we insist that they have automobile insurance because we don't want to have a huge accident occur and have the other driver, or other taxpayers have to pick up the bill. Well, individuals also have a responsibility."

Regan: "Currently, Massachusetts spends an estimated $1 billion a year covering its half million uninsured residents."

Romney: "We concluded that, in fact, if we took the money we're spending giving people free care who don't have insurance and instead use that money to help them buy insurance, we can keep from shifting the cost of the uninsured onto people who are already covered."

Regan: "Here's how the plan is expected to work: All residents will be required to either buy insurance through an employer or through the government. Those who can't afford a plan will be subsidized. They can buy insurance through the state for as little as $2.30 a month. If someone chooses not to buy a plan, there will be tax penalties, up to $1,200 a year."

Stuart Altman, Institute for Health Policy: "It would be a mistake to think of this as some crazy liberal pinko kind of Massachusetts, 'Taxachusetts,' the important thing is this is a moderate proposal."

Regan: "Stuart Altman has worked on health care policy for nearly every president since Nixon."

Altman: "I think every state should take a look at it, and I think many states will look at it very positively, and I would suspect that, I would hope that also the federal government would take a look at it."

Regan: "The bill takes effect in July of 2007, right around the same time that Governor Mitt Romney will be deciding whether to run for president in 2008, and you can bet health care will be a major issue in that race."


NBC Nightly News:
Brian Williams teased: “Health insurance for everybody. Is it possible? Tonight, one state about to make it the law. If it works, will the same thing happen where you live?”

Williams led his newscast: "Good evening. Depending on where you live, there's a good chance it's mandatory that you insure your car. And, in a strange way, that is exactly what's behind a new bill in Massachusetts, only it's about staying well. It's also likely about to become law in that state that its citizens must have health insurance. Those who can't pay themselves will have help. But more than that, if this works, why not the rest of the nation? It's been called 'mandatory health care,' 'universal health care,' and, while it has its critics, it's also being called a potential and revolutionary solution to a huge problem: the millions of uninsured Americans. We'll begin there tonight with NBC's Mike Taibbi."
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