MEDIA WATCH: Health of HMOs ignored as right-to-sue law passes

The phrase ’California is where America’s future begins’ may strike fear into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) across the country.

The phrase ’California is where America’s future begins’ may strike fear into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) across the country.

The phrase ’California is where America’s future begins’ may strike

fear into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) across the

country.



News that recent legislation passed by the California state legislature

will give residents the right to sue their healthcare providers will

undoubtedly affect the industry nationally.



With Capitol Hill preparing a so-called patients’ ’bill of rights’ and

the Supreme Court promising to determine when patients can sue their

healthcare provider, the fate of HMOs hangs ever more precariously in

the balance.



An examination of the consequent media coverage of these events by CARMA

found that HMOs are not only firmly isolated, but also that many of the

possible implications of impending legislation are being largely ignored

in the broader debate.



As soon as the Californian legislation had been passed, the media were

quick to make clear as to where the blame lies. Standing in front of a

banner reading ’Putting Patients First,’ California Governor Gary Davis

announced, ’It’s time to make the health of the patient the bottom

line.



We are today taking historic steps to cure what ails our managed care

system’ (Houston Chronicle, September 28). Recognizing the significance

of the legislation, Larry Leavitt from the Kaiser Family Foundation

added, ’As the birthplace of managed care and the biggest state in the

country, it’s a big deal when California acts because it instantly

becomes a bellwether for the nation’ (Los Angeles Times, September

28).



The HMO response was virtually deafened by the opposition cries. The

Wall Street Journal was one of the few to present a more balanced debate

as seen in a report on September 30. ’The entrepreneurial trial

attorneys are barking up the wrong tree. They are going to hurt the

consumer, not help him, by crippling health plans’ efforts to improve

quality of care and keep insurance affordable,’ said Chip Kahn,

president of the Health Insurance Association of America.



In the ensuing media coverage, numerous comparisons were made to similar

legislation in Texas, despite the subtle but important differences

between the two. Furthermore, little media coverage examined the

implications that extra litigation might have for health costs or what

purpose it might serve. ’When the punishment is punitive, it is

difficult to see the public interest. If dollars 100 million goes to one

individual and lawyers, that money is coming out of the healthcare

system,’ explained Walter Zelman, president of the California

Association of Health Plans (San Francisco Chronicle, September 28).



By drawing attention to the fact that the same lawyers who tackled the

tobacco industry are also preparing their cases against the HMOs, the

media further demonized healthcare providers and hardened public opinion

against them. Despite that HMOs’ most fierce opponents privately agree

that legislative reforms will make a difference, the media have helped

introduce the right-to-sue law by keeping focus on the public’s negative

perception of HMOs. American patients could be spending less time with

their doctors and more time with their lawyers.



Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found

at www.carma.com.



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