The twin fiascos of the bungled healthcare.gov launch and the Obama administration’s “keep your plan” broken promise not only created a direct political problem for Obama, but also a secondary problem: The news media now assumes the worst about Obamacare. That is the context in which to understand Mark Halperin’s strange assertion on a conservative talk show that “death panels” are real:
The exchange, which begins around the eight-minute mark, occurs in the context of Halperin asserting, oddly, that even conservative news organizations failed to scrutinize Obamacare. Host Steve Malzberg rebutted him:
Malzberg: “A lot of people said you weren’t going to be able to keep your health care, but also they focused on the death panels, which will be coming, call them what you will, rationing, is part of it…
Halperin: “No, I agree, and that’s going to be a huge issue, and that’s something else on which the president was not fully forthcoming and straightforward.”
Malzberg: So, you believe there will be rationing, a.k.a. death panels?”
Halperin: "It's built into the plan. It's not like a guess or like a judgment. That's going to be part of how costs are controlled.”
Halperin has since followed up to distance himself from the incendiary “death panel” claim:
In Mon intv I did not say "death panels" nor do I believe ACA contains them. Was speaking of political/policy challenge of IPAB cuts. My bad— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) November 26, 2013
Howard Dean: "The IPAB is essentially a health-care rationing body." Again, not endorsing that view, but shows coming political challenge— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) November 26, 2013
But neither part of Halperin’s defense holds up. Halperin clearly endorsed the death panel claim — when Malzberg, stunned that a mainstream journalist had agreed with him, repeated the charge, Halperin affirmed it again.
Second, Halperin frames his comments as the uncontroversial, Howard Dean–endorsed line that by “death panels” he meant “rationing,” which referred to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. But in his interview with Malzberg, Halperin followed up his endorsement of the “death panel” charge by defending the law, apparently in the spirit of balance, because, “we do need to do something about it in this country because we can’t afford to spend so much on end of life care.” Halperin was clearly referring not to general “rationing” but specifically to the idea that Obamacare rationed care for patients at the end of life, which is what the “death panel” accusation originally claimed.
In any case, it’s not even correct to describe IPAB as a rationing board, Howard Dean notwithstanding. As Halperin’s colleague, Kate Pickert, among many others, has noted, IPAB is not a rationing body. The panel is a backstop to Obamacare’s other cost containment measures. If Medicare costs rise above a certain rate, it recommends cuts to medical providers. It’s prohibited by law from rationing care.
Why did Halperin endorse such bizarre and demonstrably false claims about Obamacare? Halperin’s other comments in the interview help make sense of what he seemed to have been thinking. Basically, he believes the news media has gone far too easy on Obamacare and must now correct for its softness:
"It's clear that at the time of the passage of the Affordable Care Act and in the context of the presidential campaign, the press did nothing like an adequate job in fly-specking and scrutinizing the whole law," Halperin said.
Not just the provisions that have already become controversial, about which the president was misleading . . . but other aspects.
I would hope that as we chronicle what's going on now with the political controversy of the law and scrutiny of the president's past statements on some issues that we all learn a lesson from that."
And this is the general spirit of the coverage the law is facing now. It’s why even some mainstream reporters leapt to the conclusion that Obama also broke his promise that people could keep their doctor, which is a stretch.