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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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“Contentiousness, Controversy and Confusion:” Difficulties in Communicating Health Care Reform

Lecturers at the Public Health Symposium, sought to answer an important question: “Why don’t many people understand health care reform?”

Karen Davis, the president of The Commonwealth Fund, was the key-note speaker at the event, which took place in the Wang Center on Monday, Nov. 1.  The Commonwealth Fund is a private organization with the self-described mandate of “[promoting] a high performing health care system.”

Davis used this year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as the focal point of her address.

The act, known largely as “the health care bill,” was signed by President Barack Obama and put into effect on March 23, 2010.  A Washington Post-ABC News poll, which finished on Oct. 3, found that 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the bill; 46 percent approve.

Davis explained that the divisiveness of the bill draws from the “rampant misinformation” that surrounds it.  She provided examples of untruths that have contributed to uncertainty in the public: senior citizen Medicare benefit cuts and infamous “death panels.”  Both “myths,” Davis argued, arose from poor interpretation of the health care bill.  Factcheck.org and the AARP deem that Obama’s health care reform does not cut senior Medicare benefits.  Sarah Palin, who received criticism in 2009 for alleging on Facebook that the health care bill provided for “death panels,” later clarified her words.  Both the AARP and Politifact.com dispelled the rumors after finding no such clause in the bill.

Those who attended Davis’ keynote address offered their insight to The Statesman.

James Field, the chief revenue officer of Stony Brook’s Clinical Practice Management Plan, attributed poor interpretation of health care reform to public fear.  According to Field, the financial components of reform are difficult to grasp for patients, physicians and hospitals.  “People can’t project what it means for them financially,” Field said.   “They panic.”

It’s not just poor interpretation that can muddle the message, though.

Dr. Michael Leverett Dorn, a project staff associate of Stony Brook’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, who also attended the event, said after Davis’ address that bureaucratic complexity has often clouded the message of reform.

“A lot of people besides the [Obama] administration want their voices heard,” Dorn said.  “Everyone is trying to shout louder than one another.”

According to Dorn, government and private interests can create dissonance in the communication process when their agendas compete. CBS Evening News’ 2009 “Follow the Money” series reported that there were 3,000 health care lobbyists on Capitol Hill last year.

Jeanne Alicandro, the Public Health Symposium’s organizer, acknowledged another issue with communicating health care reform:“The health profession is not very good at communicating succinctly.”

In a brief interview after the event, Davis was asked what Stony Brook students can do to form more accurate perceptions of the health care bill.  Davis urged them to “know the reliability of information.”  She advised students to check the reports of the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, as well as those of her own organization, to make judgments based on accurate data.

“Ignorance,” concluded Davis, “is a threat to democracy.”

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