Right-wing media are pre-emptively attacking a “public option" health care proposal supported by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama by linking it to supposedly “socialist” single-payer systems that have been routinely demonized through the history of health care reform. Conservative media used this tactic to disparage the public option in 2009 during the legislative debates that created the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to tap into powerful historical tropes that promote misinformation and misperceptions of the American health care system, stymieing much-needed reform and perverting the public opinion.
The Affordable Care Act has become a major topic of conversation leading up to the election. Right-wing media have manufactured scandals by taking former President Bill Clinton’s comments at an October rally out of context and falsely claiming the newly announced health care marketplace premium increases are evidence of the so-called “death spiral” conservative media have been predicting for years -- despite no evidence the law is in danger of collapsing in on itself. The newest target of right-wing media ire is the public option, a proposal supported by Hillary Clinton and President Obama, which would introduce a low-cost, government-administered health insurance option into the federally run health insurance marketplaces.
The strategy right-wing media are using to scandalize the public option revolves around linking it to the single-payer systems used in countries with socialized medical options, either implicitly or explicitly invoking the specter of “Big Government.” Some media argue that the public option is a “Trojan Horse” to destroy the current private insurer-based market or claim that the public option is just “single-payer on the installment plan.” Others argue that Clinton “ultimately wanted a single-payer ultimate government control system for health care” and thus will eventually “go towards the single payer option” when she “replace[s] Obamacare with Hillarycare.”
If these attacks sound familiar, it’s because they are. The original draft versions of the ACA included a robust public option that Democrats ultimately dropped, partially because it became politically toxic as a result of concerted right-wing media assaults. Prominent right-wing media figures called the proposed public option a “stalking horse” or a “buy in,” arguing that “such a plan will lead to a single-payer system.” Others argued that the key to defeating the public option is “expos[ing] the positive-sounding ‘public option’ for what it truly is: a government grab.” They used the same fearmongering “Trojan Horse” rhetoric that right-wing media use now to play upon distrust of the government. They also actively demonized the public option as a socialist takeover of the health care system -- framing that has significantly impacted public opinion on the ACA and health care policy generally.
But none of this is true. Numerous fact-checkers have debunked the claim that the public option is just single-payer in sheep's clothing or that Clinton secretly wants a single-payer system. The public option is a government-administered health insurance plan that would compete in the insurance markets against private insurance plans, while in a single-payer system, “everyone in the country would have health coverage provided by the government,” according to FactCheck.org. Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of social medicine and health policy at UNC Chapel Hill, noted that “‘single payer’ is often used loosely to refer to everything” and argued that “depicting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a ‘slippery slope’ to single payer is bizarre.” Thus, efforts to conflate the two actively spread misinformation and make health care policy even more confusing than it already is for the American public.
This practice of scandalizing the public option in an effort to torpedo reform efforts is particularly problematic since the ACA does need reforms. Clinton and Obama both acknowledge the necessity of reforming the ACA to address fundamental issues about affordability and competition in the marketplaces. Recognizing that there are issues with the ACA does not mean the law is failing. However, purposefully stigmatizing a substantive proposal for reforming the current health care system is particularly troubling since Republicans have yet to produce a viable alternative to replace Obamacare. Americans remain seriously uninformed about health care policy, and the media shouldn’t allow conservative media myths to demonize a potentially productive reform before the public even has the chance to properly learn about it.