Tune it out
Healthcare policy will surely suffer in the campaign ad deluge
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.