To the millions who have soared and plunged with every blip of the news cycle, it probably feels that the Presidential campaign is entering its eighth year. Alas, there are still eight months and change to go. I know, right?

That said, with the Democrat picture becoming clearer by the week, we thought it would be a good time to get a read on the caliber and breadth of campaign health coverage to date. To that end, we reached out to four of the industry’s most thoughtful media observers – Courtney Tyne, senior director, value & access at W2O Group; Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, founder of THINK-Health; Wendy Blackburn, EVP at Intouch Group; and Daniel Elu, group VP, consumer Rx strategy & insights lead at Publicis Health Media – and asked them to weigh in on a range of issues.

The responses were so sharp and expansive that we’ve broken them up into two parts, with the first publishing today and the second publishing next Monday. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you characterize the mainstream media’s reporting on and contextualizing of candidates’ healthcare plans? How about the health-specific media’s reporting?

Tyne: The trades have definitely done a better job covering this, but there is a gap in coverage overall. A lot of the focus has been on Medicare For All, but as someone who tracks policy related to the cost of healthcare, I would like to see more of a focus on candidates’ broader ideas to rein in patient spending – reference pricing, pricing caps, biosimilars – and what the implications of these policies are for the healthcare industry. There are other ideas out there with real consequences for patients.

Sarasohn-Kahn: Mainstream media have done a poor job articulating differences between Medicare For All (supported by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and plans that would essentially tweak the ACA and expand a public option (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar). While all of the Democrat candidates for President extol the virtues of universal healthcare, there are nuances which are important – especially in terms of national spending in a time where the U.S. has a record high deficit.

At the same time, there’s an important untold story about these plans vis-à-vis keeping the status quo – which is expensive and wasteful. In the U.S., we get too little ROI and spend too much relative to other wealthy nations. So the media should be addressing the trade-offs between different approaches in greater detail.

Blackburn: It’s been a chaotic news cycle, as mainstream and trade media alike have been hyper-focused on the spread of coronavirus. When it comes to reporting on the candidates, the focus tends to be more on the attention-grabbing aspects of the personalities than on healthcare reform conversations. Who made the most recent sound bite gaffe, who attacked who at last night’s debate…

It’s very much up to each one of us, as voters, to self-educate in order to understand the candidates’ positions. We cannot rely on just the headlines.

Elu: Election seasons serve as a powerful catalyst for discussion and debate around important topics, including healthcare. The challenge is that these conversations often become wrapped up in individual candidate policy without much context. And it’s often the sound bites that generate media buzz – and that shape our perspectives as they pop into our social feeds – rather than the issues themselves.

Media coverage of healthcare so far generally falls into two categories: a comparison of candidates’ plans for the purpose of presenting conflicting facts, or pieces focused on single issues. What we don’t see enough of is how intricate and interconnected healthcare is. Much of the media content is built without context – which is often where misinformation begins, giving people a narrow view of a topic. People deserve to see and understand the full picture of healthcare, what options exist for them and how to make a more informed decision based on their own health needs.

What are the issues that have been reported most thoroughly and accurately?

Tyne: A lot of coverage has been accurate, just not complete. The healthcare industry is so complicated and there are so many players. It can be hard to distill the nuances of an issue into consumable content for readers.

Sarasohn-Kahn: This is a very short list! What’s been reported quite clearly is that President Trump’s promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act hasn’t come to pass. Instead, the Administration has made a series of changes to the ACA which have eroded many provisions, driving up the numbers of uninsured and reducing protections for pre-existing conditions. They’ve driven up the growth of surprise medical bills and negatively impacted coverage for the preventive services covered by the ACA.

In addition, it’s well-covered that the President, who promised to lower the price of prescription drugs in his campaign, hasn’t been able to pull this off. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll found that the vast majority of Americans across political party support lowering the price of medicines, but few knew the House had passed the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act.

Blackburn: It’s clear the one thing all candidates can agree on is that healthcare reform is needed. When it comes to covering candidates’ healthcare platforms, Medicare For All has been a big buzzword – and a popular platform among the progressives. But the devil is in the details, and I imagine many American voters don’t really know what Medicare For All means.

What are the issues that have been reported least thoroughly and accurately?

Tyne: It would be great to see more reporting covering where our healthcare dollar goes. For example, how do distributors affect healthcare costs and what kind of profits are they seeing? How are employers pushing back, if at all? Can we explore the black box that is PBMs?

Sarasohn-Kahn: There is a huge literacy gap in America regarding the cost components of healthcare in the U.S. – specifically, costs and prices generated by the hospital/inpatient setting compared with the cost of prescription drugs. When Uwe Reinhardt uttered the phrase in the seminal Health Affairs column he co-authored, “It’s the Prices, Stupid,” he was talking about both the prices of medicines and hospital services. But pharma has been blamed more than hospitals in so much of the media coverage and the hospital share is much larger. Pharma costs borne by the patient are more transparent and direct.

To be continued on March 2