In the waning days of Lehman, this blog described a particularly avid defender of the beleaguered bank at CNBC as “the favorite outlet of those who aspire to paint the tape.” That was not terribly well received, needless to say.
The New York Times seems to be adopting a similar fawning posture towards health insurers. A few weeks ago, it ran a story that was an obvious media plant, a flattering, or more accurately, one-sided portrait of a health insurance industry lobbyist, one Karen Ignagni.
The latest salvo in the health care industry charm offensive is another story humanizing the health insurance industry, this one on the front page of the New York Times website, “Dealing With Being the Health Care ‘Villains’”
So what is the story about? The author, Kevin Sack, interviewed a bunch of employees at Humana, the fourth-largest insurance company.
Let’s start with the basics. Why is this even a reasonable premise for a story? This is a perverse twist on a type of story the Times runs periodically, of dropping into a particular community, often in the heartland, to get the populace’s view on a pressing political or social issue.
Since when is it legitimate, much the less newsworthy, to get a company’s perception on its embattled status, at least without introducing either some contrary opinion or better yet, facts, to counter the views of people who will inevitably see what they are doing as right? I hate to draw an extreme comparison to make the point, but staff in Nazi concentration camps also thought they were good people. It is well documented that for all save the depressed, people’s assessments of their own behavior is biased in their favor.
Similarly, I don’t recall many examples of industries under attack having prominent members get flattering front page pieces. The now-famous AIG Financial Products “I Quit” letter was an op-ed. I will admit I could have missed it, but I did not see any New York Times front page pieces during the auto bailouts featuring GM or Chrysler execs and workers saying they were misunderstood. and were being maligned.
So what do we have here? You have a bunch of people whose livelihood depends on Humana. Of course they are gong to see the industry as benign.
And nowhere in this fawning piece do you see mention made of the ugly fact that as recently as the early 1990s, 95% of every dollar spent on insurance claims went to medical care. It is now only 80%. That is a simply stunning change, and shows how completely fact free the industry’s defenses are. The insurers are a major culprit in America’s high medical costs.. But no, we are supposed to take the mere opinion of employees who are deeply vested in the current system as views worth considering.
So back to the lame New York Times article. We get a full 11 paragraphs of stuff like this:
“I’m certainly not villainous or immoral in any way, shape or form,” said Mr. Shireman, 40, a project manager for Humana, the country’s fourth-largest health insurer.
Yves here. Not immoral in any way, shape or form? The Ten Commandments list lying as a sin.I would say it is pretty much impossible for form Mr. Shireman to function in commerce in America and have never told a lie, which means his statement to the NYT is an amazing bit of self-delusion.
But we get more in that vein: :They do not save lives. They just pay the bills.”
Help me. Insurance companies do not passively “just pay the bills.” Not only do they make a great sport of denying routine claims, but if you need a major procedure, you run the risk of having your insurer go over your records to see if they can find a basis for rescinding your policy. The usual grounds is that the patient perpetrated a fraud by failing to report a pre-existing condition, no matter how minor and unrelated to the expense at hand.
So we get 11 paragraphs before we read a peep of dissent, which is immediately undercut:
Such assertions may paper over the industry’s record of double-digit price increases, medical underwriting to exclude applicants from coverage, cancellation of policies for incidental causes, denials of claims, deceptive marketing and generous executive compensation.
But Humana workers and executives said the industry tended to absorb blows that should be directed elsewhere.
And then we get this bit:
The workers said they found the political attacks surprising given the insurance industry’s engagement in this year’s debate. The companies have agreed to stop rejecting applicants with pre-existing health conditions if the government will mandate health coverage, creating vast new markets.
Every Humana employee interviewed, including Mr. McCallister, predicted that a public plan would place private insurers at an impossible disadvantage, without duplicating their efficiencies.
Mr. Obama regularly argues that such a plan is needed to “keep the insurance companies honest.” He has personalized the message by telling of his mother’s struggle with her insurance company as she was dying of ovarian cancer.
Ms. Tidwell observed, “If they don’t have a villain or enemy, how do they sell a story?”
Yves again. Is the only reality in this piece the funhouse mirror world of personal beliefs? We have the employee’s self serving opinions versus Obama’s story of his grandmother. The story appears crafted to support Tidwell’s argument that that all we have are competing narratives. And if you take that perspective, you really ought to take the Humana workers’ view as gospels, since lots of them think the same way, and their views are based on tons of day-in, day-out experience, while all we have on the other side is Obama with his story of his mother. One tragic story clearly cannot stand up against so much collective experience.
Next we get this:
Humana’s profit margin was 2.2 percent in 2008 on revenues of nearly $29 billion. Its revenues have more than doubled since 2004, with almost all of the growth coming from the sale of privately administered Medicare Advantage plans. Those plans now account for the vast majority of Humana’s business, a real vulnerability if Mr. Obama succeeds in cutting Medicare Advantage because of its comparatively high administrative costs.
Humana has 28,000 employees, including 10,000 in Louisville, many of whom work in a monumental headquarters tower constructed of pink granite. It is the second-largest employer here and has built good will through philanthropy to the arts, the schools and health care.
Yves here. Again, the same message: Humana is nice, new rules could damage it.
Now the next in this series is that ” Kevin Sack will visit a struggling nonprofit health clinic in Milwaukee.” But a report on how a particular health care operation is faring is a separate piece, and does not counteract the one-sidedness of this treatment.