Just In Time for 'Sicko,' CBS Levels Two-Part Attack on Private Health Insurance

     Health insurance is one of the main issues for the 2008 presidential race, and CBS has started its left-leaning coverage early – timing it with the beginning of hype about Michael Moore’s new health insurance movie, “Sicko.”


     “It’s all about money,” said Tod Smith, a 54-year-old who suffered a heart attack, about insurance companies. “That’s the bottom line,” he told CBS viewers.


     “CBS Evening News” two-part series on health insurance relied heavily on anti-industry sources, making a case against private insurance on the May 23 and 24 broadcasts. 


     CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian questioned why health insurers decline to insure some applicants.


     Katie Couric, anchor of “Evening News,” led off saying 46 million are living without insurance, a frequently used statistic from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation.


     A portion of this 46 million, however, are young adults who do not have health insurance because they are “overwhelming healthy and believe in their invulnerability,” according to testimony given by Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, before a House subcommittee on health on April 27. Thus, some choose not to have health coverage because cost is the biggest issue.


     That was only one of countless relevant facts CBS left out of its reporting. The network used several tactics to undermine private insurance.

Limiting industry representation


     In the May 23 story, CBS limited its offering of the insurance companies’ view to Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that works on behalf of 1,300 health insurance companies. Pisano explained that some conditions may seem minor, but they can still include a hefty expense to insurers.


     Keteyian portrayed Pisano’s response as the insurance companies “cherry-picking” the healthiest of individuals and slighting those who seek individual coverage to drive up profit margins.  


     Although insurance company Assurant provided a statement for the May 24 CBS report, there was no spokesman. CBS did interview a former Assurant employee, but as an effort to undermine the company’s reputation.

Using misleading statistics (and leaving out statistics) about insurance


     According to the May 24 story, Assurant insurance has more than 500 complaints nationwide. However, Peter Duckler, a spokesman for Assurant, told the Business and Media Institute that Assurant has a little more than 1 million health insurance policies, and 64 percent of those policies are individual policies. That’s only one complaint per 1,280 individual health insurance policies – perspective CBS did not provide.

Portraying legal company practices as shocking


     CBS continued its crusade against the health insurers’ right to decline coverage with an interview with Bryan Liang, a law professor and executive director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at California Western School of Law in San Diego.


     Liang, labeled as someone “who has studied the insurance industry for more than a decade,” has a long list of media citations advocating left-of-center stances on everything from more advocating more regulation in the pharmaceutical industry to criticizing Congress’ decision to act in the 2005 Terry Schiavo case.


     “Insurers are getting double the profit that they make in the group market,” Liang said. “Why is it so lucrative? Because they exclude anybody and everybody who has a remote sense of risk associated with their health care.”


     Liang outlined different questions insurers ask potential clients prior to granting them coverage. However, neither Keteyian nor Liang acknowledged these practices are perfectly legal in accordance with California law.


Liang: “They want to know everything about you, your credit history.”

Keteyian: “Excuse me?”

Liang: “Your credit history is something that is very interesting to them, and they want to know about it.”


     Keteyian told viewers about a database insurers use called the Medical Information Bureau (MIB). He referred to it as “a massive, little-known database” that contains all the queries from applicants.


     However, what Keteyian didn’t point out is the MIB is a database used by more than 500 insurers in the United States and Canada. According to the organization’s Web site, the database protects insurers from applicant fraud and ensures fair pricing, which keeps insurers’ cost down – and helps keep premiums lower.

Stacking up liberal sources

     CBS focused its May 23 investigation on Scott Svonkin, a Democratic supporter with an axe to grind against insurers.


     When Svonkin left his job as a legislative chief of staff to start his own business, he had to seek a new health insurance provider for himself and his family. Svonkin was rejected by three of California’s largest health insurance providers – Blue Cross of California, Health Net and PacifiCare for a variety of reasons.


     “PacifiCare rejected me because I’m an expectant father. Blue Shield rejected me because I got a spider bite. And then this one rejected me because of asthma,” Svonkin said.


     Although he wasn’t identified as such until the end of the story, Svonkin also happens to be the chairman of the Los Angeles County Insurance Commission. According to a Dec. 31, 2006, Los Angeles Times story that mirrors the details of this part of the CBS investigative series, Svonkin joined the commission 10 years ago because he was concerned about people losing health insurance coverage.


     CBS’s selection of Svonkin as the focal point of the story didn’t emphasize his advocacy role. In addition, on May 21 Svonkin appeared onstage with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as he announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Richardson’s solution for increasing health insurance coverage is to increase the umbrella of Medicaid, a move that would make it less of an incentive for an individual to work harder to improve his quality of life, according to Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute.


     Keteyian also revealed at the very end of the story that Svonkin is enrolled in a government-run program that offers minimum coverage to high-risk applicants.


     Part two of CBS’s report was worse. Keteyian used Tod Smith, a 54-year old illustrator of children’s books; Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal; and a former insurance company employee to attack Assurant, a Milwaukee-based insurance provider.


     Smith, who keeps a poster mocking President Bush by his drawing table, was a victim of a heart attack. His plight has been exploited by Blumenthal, a politically ambitious attorney general.


     “Blumenthal charges Assurant has a pattern of ‘bad faith’ when it comes to its customers,” added Keteyian, casting him as a heroic figure.


     Blumenthal, recently rated the worst attorney general by Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has a history of going after businesses – including tobacco, Microsoft and now the health insurance industry. And, this is not the first time CBS News has glorified the office of Blumenthal.