Health Care: Words That Work

Three reasons we need quality, informed health journalists: Frank Luntz, AHIP and PhRMA.

Luntz is the pollster, strategist for right wing politicians fighting against universal health care. AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) is the professional lobbying association that gave us the Harry and Louise advertising that capped off the disinformation campaign that scuttled the Clinton Health Care Initiative. And PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) is the drug industry lobbying group that prevented Medicare from bargaining for cheaper drug prices and lavished overpayment to private insurers in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.

As the nation moves into a more focused debate on health care reform it’s inevitable that the words used will be laced with emotion and, unfortunately, obfuscation. Pollster Frank Luntz offers “Ten rules for stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of healthcare.” That’s the opening sentence of his latest research project. Luntz advises Republicans about how to speak of key social issues.

Luntz pioneered the instant response dial. Focus groups respond immediately to the words of politicians by using a tool to dial up or down their reaction to those words. He engineers messages by determining favorable language. His research is being used to build opposition to Pres. Obama’s health care reform measures. There’s an interesting overview of Luntz’s recommendations to Senators and Congressional representatives about how to talk about health care reform on the Campaign for America’s Future blog.

Blogger Bernie Horn writes that Luntz is tailoring messages to fears he unearthed through research. For example, one fear is that a government-run health program will deny patients access to physicians and treatment they need. Unlike the current system in which health insurers control access and treatment based on their own profits, Luntz raises the specter that government bureaucrats will control our health destiny. Fear more than fact.

AHIP and PhRMA have pledged to cut costs and save two trillion dollars over the next decade. But, a moderately skeptical person has to ask, “Where have you been? And why now?” And most pertinent, “What’s in it for you?”

These are same groups that have given us the most expensive and arguably least effective health care system among developing nations. Given their track record on public policy, skepticism and a critical eye are justified.

What we need in the health care debate is accurate information, authentic debate and genuine problem-solving. We’ve had enough inaccurate and intentionally misleading rhetoric. We need health journalists who will cut through the rhetoric and interpret the issues free of the political agendas of well-heeled, self-interested lobbying groups. Health care reform must not be held hostage to politics once again.

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