Tune it out

Health­care pol­icy will surely suf­fer in the cam­paign ad del­uge

Modern Healthcare - - OPINIONS EDITORIALS - NEIL MCLAUGH­LIN Manag­ing Ed­i­tor

Apub­lic health emer­gency is upon us. This one doesn’t stem from the stan­dard epi­demics such as avian flu or cholera. We’re talk­ing about a men­tal health threat: cam­paign sea­son. Health­care providers ought to ad­vise pa­tients to take pre­ven­tive mea­sures as we plunge into the sep­tic en­vi­ron­ment of po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. Ex­po­sure to cam­paign pro­pa­ganda is a huge risk fac­tor for the well-be­ing of the body politic and may prove detri­men­tal to health­care pub­lic pol­icy.

This year’s pres­i­den­tial and con­gres­sional cam­paigns prom­ise to rank among the worst be­cause of the new so­called su­per PACs. These groups may raise un­lim­ited sums of money from cor­po­ra­tions, unions, as­so­ci­a­tions and in­di­vid­u­als and then spend un­lim­ited sums to overtly sup­port or op­pose can­di­dates. Ac­cord­ing to the cam­paign fi­nance dis­clo­sure web­site OpenSe­crets.org, 677 groups or­ga­nized as su­per PACs as of July 18 re­ported to­tal re­ceipts of $281.4 mil­lion and ex­pen­di­tures of nearly $144.5 mil­lion so far in the 2012 fed­eral elec­tion cy­cle.

Cou­ple this with the 2010 Cit­i­zens United U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion, which pro­hibits the gov­ern­ment from re­strict­ing in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal ex­pen­di­tures by cor­po­ra­tions, and you have the mak­ings of a toxic po­lit­i­cal stew. The court’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for this ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion in­cluded the no­tion that trans­parency of do­na­tions and spend­ing would be en­forced by law­mak­ers, giv­ing the pub­lic the in­for­ma­tion it needed to eval­u­ate the ad­ver­tis­ing mes­sages.

It was a nice the­ory to­tally di­vorced from re­al­ity. Last week, Republicans in the U.S. Se­nate blocked leg­is­la­tion that would have re­quired dis­clo­sure of any­one who do­nates more than $10,000 on cam­paign ads or their func­tional equiv­a­lents.

One ca­su­alty is sure to be health­care, which has enough prob­lems with­out shady groups pro­mot­ing se­cret agen­das. As we saw dur­ing the run-up to the health­care re­form votes in Congress, truth doesn’t stand a chance when the ads roll out. One of the most de­cep­tive blitzes was en­gi­neered by for­mer Columbia/hca chief and now Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who pumped mil­lions into an anti-re­form cam­paign un­der the ban­ner of a group called Con­ser­va­tives for Pa­tient Rights. The group’s tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials of­fered du­bi­ous hor­ror sto­ries of health­care in Canada and Bri­tain, warn­ing that Amer­i­cans must not em­brace those sys­tems. (Even though they spend less money than the U.S. on care and get bet­ter out­comes.)

Who­ever is pro­duc­ing this year’s ads, whether re­form pro­po­nents or op­po­nents, you can be sure health­care will get the shal­low, ad hominem treat­ment given to ev­ery other ma­jor is­sue. That’s un­for­tu­nate since health­care ranks not far be­low quan­tum me­chan­ics as sub­jects that aren’t well-elu­ci­dated by po­lit­i­cal drones. The pub­lic is al­ready per­plexed by this coun­try’s Rube Gold­berg health­care “sys­tem.” And it is so thor­oughly con­fused by po­lit­i­cal mis­in­for­ma­tion that more may prove fatal.

But cit­i­zens can take pro­phy­lac­tic mea­sures. They can tune out all the ads. Ad­vise your pa­tients to turn off the TV. That will be good for their phys­i­cal as well as men­tal health. They might ac­tu­ally get off the couch. If they must watch, they should get a record­ing de­vice that skips over com­mer­cials. (One that blocks ca­ble “news” chan­nels, with their 24-hour po­lit­i­cal drivel, would also be ben­e­fi­cial.)

And pre­scribe a reg­i­men of se­ri­ous news pub­li­ca­tions such as ma­jor news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and news web­sites.

But if pa­tients are in­ad­ver­tently ex­posed to po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing, they must dis­re­gard what they hear. They must as­sume any­thing broad­cast by any cam­paign or group is false, mis­lead­ing and pos­si­bly harm­ful to their health and pock­et­books, which it al­most cer­tainly is.

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