Media and Politics

If the Media Keeps Ignoring Health Care, We’ll Lose It

There is a giant scandal in Washington this week—and it’s not the one blaring from your television screen. Largely without media scrutiny, the United States Senate is quietly getting ready to pass their version of the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If it looks anything like the legislation the House passed last month—and by most accounts, it does—the bill could take away health care coverage from millions (the House-passed American Health Care Act would take away health insurance from 23 million people in 10 years).

The Senate’s stealth strategy here should come as no surprise: They learned from the House.  After the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that 24 million people would lose health care under the initial version of the AHCA bill, constituents responded by flooding House offices with phone calls. Paul Ryan and Republican leadership were forced to cancel a vote in mid-March, because the public opposition to the bill made it impossible to secure the votes they needed. The House then went back to their members and passed a new version, with no CBO score or media coverage, in order to mask the effects of their bill.

That handed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the playbook he needs to get his bill passed.  The Senate companion to the House bill is being crafted under lock and key, foregoing committee hearings, mark-up, or any public debate. McConnell went as far as kicking all non-leadership staff out of secret discussions last month to prevent them from disclosing information about the bill to the public. Even rank-and-file GOP Senators—who control the chamber and will likely be tasked with sending the legislation to the president’s desk—claim not to know what’s in it. According to Axios, the bill will not be released publicly even once it is complete. Instead, Mitch McConnell plans to send the completed text to the Congressional Budget Office for review, without any public scrutiny.

What’s shocking is not that the Senate is attempting to pass this bill under a shroud of secrecy; it’s that the strategy is working. As Vox’s Jeff Stein has been chronicling, most mainstream media outlets have either ignored the Senate health care discussions or downplayed their urgency.

Scanning the front webpages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and CNN on Monday revealed no mentions of the health care bill—and the same was true for much of last week. Even politics-focused outlets like Politico and the Hill have largely relegated their coverage of the health care fight to specialized newsletters or paywalled content.

Instead, lead stories focus almost exclusively on the Trump-Russia investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week dominated national news coverage. Later in the week, news that the FBI was investigating the president himself—and the president’s histrionic response on Twitter—crowded out any discussion of the health care bill.

The media have their excuses. Without senators willing to discuss the plans publicly, reporters have found it difficult to break news on the topic. Cable news has no compelling soundbites to play for their viewers because Republican Senators are not holding public hearings, committee mark-ups, or press conferences on the bill.

There has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process

But, as newsworthy as Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is, a bill to take away health insurance from millions is, at the very least, equally worthy of public attention. The legislation Senate Republicans are currently discussing is likely to reinstate annual and lifetime benefit limits—even for employer plans outside of the ACA exchanges. This could be a death sentence for people who get sick and require expensive care to stay alive.  Recent analysis from the Center for American Progress (full disclosure: TalkPoverty.org is a project of the Center) revealed that up to 27 million Americans could face annual limits. And the Senate is planning to go beyond repealing the Medicaid expansion—which was part of the ACA—by imposing deep cuts to the traditional Medicaid program that helps seniors, kids, and people with disabilities in every state.

What the Senate is doing is an affront to democracy, but there has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process or underlying legislation. For the public to hold their representatives accountable, they need to have accurate—or at least basic—information on what Congress is doing. Just as dogged journalism has revealed some of most critical details of the Russia investigation, it is the responsibility of the press to draw out the contents of the Senate’s health care bill—before it is too late.

Editor’s note: For more on the healthcare news that no one is talking about, take a listen to the latest episode of CAP Action’s Off-Kilter podcast here.

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Media and Politics

Maybe This Is the Article That Will Convince You Not to Cut Medicaid

My sister Maggie’s body attacks itself.

In 2010, she went to the eye doctor for difficulties she was having with her vision. She thought she needed a new glasses prescription. Instead, she was admitted to the emergency room because the ophthalmologist thought she was having a stroke or a brain tumor.

Many appointments and tests and anxious weeks later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the membrane around its own nerve fibers, causing scar tissue. A typical diagnosis requires two to three lesions on the brain; my sister’s brain had eleven. Because MS attacks the central nervous system, symptoms vary widely, ranging from fatigue and vision problems to seizures and paralysis. The worst part about MS is its unpredictability; one day my sister can seem healthy and the next day she can be overwhelmed with nerve pains, muscle spasms, and immobility.

At the time of her diagnosis, my sister was a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom to her 3-year-old daughter. Her husband’s insurance covered her then. But within a year of her diagnosis, they filed for divorce.

This is not uncommon for women diagnosed with serious illnesses. A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer found that a married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is seven times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis. Among study participants, the divorce rate was 21 percent for seriously ill women and 3 percent for seriously ill men.

After my sister’s diagnosis, her husband withdrew from the family. He engaged in addictive and destructive behaviors. That left my sister in a position where her access to health care was tied to a marriage that was not good for her or her daughter.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, made it possible for her to live as a single mom with a chronic illness.

It qualified her for Medicaid coverage in Montana. It ensured that she would not be discriminated against in the health care market because she had a pre-existing condition. And it let her choose which treatment plan would be right for her and her body.

For six years, she experimented with different medications, starting with the cheaper ones (which cost $1,000-$3,000 a month). Her symptoms did not improve: Sometimes she relapsed, sometimes she got sicker, and sometimes she had to take drugs to deal with symptoms caused by other drugs. Still, she felt it was worth it to try to slow the progression of the disease.

It would cost her $65,000 a year without insurance

Last year, she found a treatment that works: It’s called Rituxan and it would cost her $65,000 a year without insurance. It’s part of a chemotherapy treatment she does every few months. It leaves her feeling sick and unable to work for a few days, but it works.

Last spring, Maggie graduated from Montana State with a degree in social work. She recently got a part-time job at an assisted living facility, which is funded in part by Medicaid.

It’s a good fit for her, because full-time work would be incredibly difficult with both her MS and her current treatment plan. It’s also a good fit for her because Maggie is one of the most caring people I know. She works with some of the most marginalized people in our society—elderly individuals, people with mental illness, those with severe disabilities—all unable to work or care for themselves.

The Congressional Republican health care plan could change all of that.

Under their plan, my sister could lose Medicaid because her part-time, low-wage income would disqualify her.

Under their plan, my sister could lose coverage for Rituxan, the only treatment that has worked for her so far.

Under their plan, my sister’s pre-existing condition could be used as justification to raise costs on her medical insurance.

Under their plan, my sister’s mobility and opportunity would be more limited by her economic insecurity than they are by her MS.

This is what it means to be uninsured. It means you cannot live safely and comfortably in your own body.

Maybe, if one of them is sympathetic enough, we'll be taken seriously.

It is excruciating to have to determine the trade-offs your family can make to maintain your sister’s health care. It is even worse to make those choices, knowing they would become worse under all the new iterations of the conservatives’ health care plan. But the true hell is having to have to do it all in public: To have to write articles like this with personal testimonies, create heartbreaking GoFundMe campaigns, share that video of Jimmy Kimmel talking about his baby with tears in his eyes, in the hopes that they go viral. Maybe, if one of them is sympathetic enough, someone will look my sister in the eyes and decide her pain, and her life, should be taken seriously.

At the very least, today, I will be calling undecided senators in Congress so that they can understand the impact of their vote. But let it be known that it’s only one among hundreds of efforts my family, like so many others, undertake to get access to health care for the people we love.

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Media and Politics

Mayor Bill de Blasio: How We Cut Poverty in New York City

I came into office determined to use every tool available to a Mayor of New York to fight the inequality that is threatening the city I love. There’s still much more to do, but New Yorkers should be proud that we have taken big steps forward.

Our city is now measurably fairer. By the end of the first two years of our administration, the share of New Yorkers living in or near poverty fell almost two percent. We now have the lowest share of New Yorkers living at or near poverty since the Great Recession.

This did not happen by accident. It was the result of choices we made every day. We chose working families over corporations. We chose seniors over developers. We chose neighborhoods over hedge fund billionaires. The income inequality that has been strangling us is the result of choices made by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. We made choices for the 99 percent.

We made those choices on a massive scale. We added an entire grade to the country’s largest public school system: nearly 70,000 4-year-olds now receive free, all-day high-quality pre-K. That saves the average family $10,000 a year, and frees parents to pursue their careers and education.

We marched with workers and won a $15 minimum wage. We set a goal to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, the biggest program in a quarter century—and we’re ahead of schedule. We’ve seen the first rent freezes in city history, affecting 2.5 million New Yorkers. We are rewriting rules to make employment work for everyone, including guaranteeing paid sick leave and placing restrictions on potential employers inquiring about salary or criminal history.

These choices are producing results.

This is the result of choices we make every day.

Poverty is now at its lowest level since the Great Recession and a broad cross section of New Yorkers are reaping the benefits. Many groups saw significant declines in poverty or near poverty including: single parents; seniors; adults of working age; people with high school educations; blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites.

We are already five years ahead of schedule on our goal to lift 800,000 people out of poverty by 2025. We project that by the end of this year more than 280,000 men, women and children – about the population of Newark, New Jersey – will rise out of poverty or near-poverty.

Given the tired and phony arguments conservatives so often trot out to oppose policies like these, it’s important to state clearly that our decisions have helped our economy. Let me repeat that: We’ve helped working people and our economy is stronger than ever.

Employment is at a record high. Just 4.1 percent of New Yorkers were unemployed in April 2017. That means there are a quarter million more people in the workforce today than in 2013.

The jobs New Yorkers are finding are good jobs. The share of New Yorkers earning more than $50,000 a year grew to more than 48 percent in 2015. That is its highest level in a decade. Comparing 2015 to two years before, almost 125,000 more New Yorkers are earning more than $50,000 per year.

There are many reasons for Americans to be worried these days. We have a president and a Republican-controlled Congress that want to take us backwards. Their plans would give tax breaks to billionaires and corporations, let Wall Street write its own rules, and gut health care for millions to fund handouts for millionaires.

At the same time, I’m hopeful. Big, bold progressive policies are working right here in New York City and that matters now more than ever. People are watching us. They’re looking for an antidote. They’re looking for a different way forward and we are proving that an economy by, for, and of the people can be a strong and growing economy, too.

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Culture

A Year After Pulse, We Are More Than Survivors

I still remember the metallic taste in my mouth when I first heard about the Pulse night club shooting. I was sitting on my couch, hung over from DC Pride, scrolling through Twitter. My whole feed was full of AP alerts tallying the body count, of articles describing the lives lost, of members of the Orlando LGBTQ community searching for their loved ones. Almost immediately after that initial wave of nausea hit me, the tears came.

And for about 24 hours, maybe more, they didn’t stop.

Many LGBTQ people know what it’s like to feel rejected. Too many know what it’s like to be attacked. But to feel terrorized was a sensation that many of us weren’t familiar with. A year later, we are still grappling with it.

I remember reading through the last names of those who were killed and seriously injured that evening. Those last names looked just like mine, and like those of the people I love and consider my chosen family. These gorgeous Latinx people went to a club—which has always been our safe place—to celebrate their community, to dance and release their inhibitions, and to be understood. Their freedom to express who they were, their right to create space in a world that didn’t always celebrate them, was brutally stomped out. There is no reconciling that.

That morning, I called my mom, wrote a piece on Medium, and then went to church. I sat with a friend, in my usual pew at St. Augustine’s—center aisle, four rows from the back—and listened to the chorale sing about love, piety, and stewardship. After the second hymn, I felt the lump begin to form in my throat and I started to cry again. Seated in a beautiful house of worship, surrounded by stained glass and marble, I felt robbed of something sacred to me: my sense of safety. I know that many of my friends felt the same way I did, and some still do.

We gave each other what we needed

I dragged myself into the office the next day, knowing it would be painful. I didn’t get much work done that day—at least, not as it was written in my job description. Instead, I helped fill our biggest conference room with staff who needed to feel heard and safe. We shared stories about ourselves, about our families, about being survivors of other horrifying acts of gun violence, about solidarity. The raw emotion shown in that room was so powerful. We cried and held one another, and we were honest with our allies about our fears. We gave each other what we needed that day: reassurance and compassion.

In the year that has passed since the Pulse shooting, we have learned a lot about our country. We have learned that homophobic politicians will do whatever is best for them, including ignoring the identities of the people we lost that night. We have learned that the gun lobby will use any tragedy to encourage the proliferation of gun use. We have learned that it continues to be dangerous to exist in this world as Latinx and LGBTQ, let alone both. And we have learned that the pettiness of Donald Trump, who thanked people for congratulating him “for being right on radical Islamic terrorism” instead of mourning the 49 lives we lost, knows no bounds.

But the most important lesson we have learned is that the LGBTQ community is strong. We are resilient. We are beautiful. We are politically powerful. No mad man, or coalition of racists or homophobes, can take from us what we manifest in each other: unapologetic love.

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Media and Politics

The Washington Post’s Reporting on Disability Is Giving Trump Cover for Disability Cuts

The Washington Post is out with the second in a series of articles pushing the nastiest of myths about Social Security disability benefits and the people who rely on them.

Their latest article, titled “Generations, disabled,” doubles down on seriously flawed reporting that The Post began in March. This time the author, Terrence McCoy, profiles a family in Missouri struggling with poverty and health-related challenges. McCoy takes aim at many aspects of their lives, but the one he reserves the most scorn for—the fact that more than one person in the family receives disability benefits—mirrors the same disability cuts Trump called for in last week’s budget proposal.

The piece immediately drew deserved criticism on social media from a range of respected journalists and experts including The Atlantic’s Annie Lowry, Vox’s Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews, and former National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling.

 

Like the first article in The Post’s series, the latest story willfully ignores the reality of Social Security disability benefits, instead relying on flawed data and flowery writing and anecdotes to paint a cartoonish picture of rural America overtaken by a “culture of disability.” As my colleague Kate Gallagher Robbins pointed out on Twitter, the piece reads like a work of fiction. It even opens with a stage-setting mini-story practically ripped from Of Mice and Men, in which a child accidentally drops and nearly kills his new puppy.

Notably, where the piece does introduce evidence beyond richly woven anecdote, what evidence it includes contradicts The Post’s narrative.

Case in point: The article makes much of the fact that multiple family members, such as a parent and a child, might receive disability benefits. Yet the article’s text makes no mention of the data featured in a sidebar, which tell the real story here: that disability often runs in families. But The Post would rather blame the lifeboat for the flood.

This kind of reporting isn’t just stigmatizing and misleading—it’s dangerous.

You wouldn’t know it from The Post’s reporting, but as my colleagues and I have pointed out time and again—including in our multiple responses to The Post’s previous go-round on disability—Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get. The vast majority of applicants are denied, and fewer than 4 in 10 Social Security Disability Insurance applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. For those who do receive benefits, they are modest—barely enough to bring many disability beneficiaries far above the federal poverty line.

A set of personal testimonials tacked on as an addendum to the article tells the real story of disability benefits. These reader stories offer a more accurate description of what these benefits mean to people who rely on them to make ends meet—and the immense challenges that living with a disability or chronic illness can bring. Kudos to The Post for including them—but disappointingly, they appear to be an afterthought that failed to penetrate the paper’s reporting on these programs.

This kind of reporting isn’t just stigmatizing and misleading—it’s dangerous. A flurry of anecdote-based media accounts in the late 1980s and early 1990s—which created the original “welfare queen” myth—paved the way for politicians to dismantle cash assistance for poor families with children in the name of “welfare reform.” In the 25 years since, the share of poor families with kids helped by the shell of a program that remains—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—has dropped from 8 in 10 to fewer than 1 in 4.

The current political climate, paired with The Washington Post’s reporting, is setting disability benefits to meet the same fate as cash assistance. Just last week, President Trump proposed a whopping $72 billion in cuts to these disability programs in his budget. Before this series, I would have expected better from The Post than to give cover to such cruel and heartless cuts.

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