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Editorial Reflection

Knowing source of ‘talking points,’ we might look at in-depth sources

Where do “talking points” come from?

When we hear the same idea expressed in the same words by seven politicians, spokespersons or pundits, we are hearing the talking point for the day.  We need to know its source to step out of its power.

In June, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon spoke in the U.S. Senate, describing talking points provided to opponents of health-care reform.   He then read from speeches by those opponents who used sentences from Frank Luntz’s 28-page memo entitled “The Language of Health Care 2009.”

Frank is a political consultant.  His specialty is finding inflammatory language that plays on apprehensions that come to light in focus groups and polling.  The use of “death tax” for “inheritance tax” is one of his creations.  He has written a book on Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say But What People Hear.

His “Language of Health Care” provides ammunition to oppose any health-care plan presented by the majority in Congress or by the President.  It has 10 main points briefly presented with examples of words and phrases to use.  One section gives polling results for each point and a box of “Words That Work.”

Recognizing that health-care reform is popular, he has created guidelines and catch words for building support for the “right” kind of reform, while opposing any plan put forth by the majority in Congress.  He seeks to create fear.

Frank wants us to fear “government takeover,” bureaucrats, Washington, Canadian health care, any waiting for medical procedures and denial of care.  He tells followers to let time be “the government health-care killer” by delaying passage of reform.

An opponent of current health-care proposals is advised to admit there is a crisis, but to explain it as having a “bureaucrat put himself between you and your doctor.”

His “perfect sentence” to deal with the fact many Americans can’t afford health insurance says nothing:  “What we need is a balanced, common-sense approach that provides assistance to those who truly need it and keeps health care patient-centered rather than government-centered for everyone.”

His memo describing his “talking points” is at wonkroom.thinkprogress.org.  We need to be aware and ask who funds him.

Meanwhile, we have heard little about the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which has been studying Medicare delivery for about 20 years. 

The project is the source of the statement that the best health care in the country is not the most expensive. 

At www.dartmouthatlas.org, there is a link to an article on their findings in the February New England Journal of Medicine. 

Atul Gawande, M.D., wrote “The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas Town Can Teach Us about Health Care,” in the June 1 New Yorker magazine—www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/06/01. 

He cites the Dartmouth project and information comparing Medicare delivery in McAllen and El Paso.  These border towns are comparable in size, income, poverty and health problems.  Texas capped medical malpractice awards.

El Paso’s Medicare delivery costs are half of McAllen’s. 

The difference is that doctors in McAllen over-use diagnostic tests, operations, hospital stays and home-health care.  They often own interests in surgery centers, imaging centers and companies that provide home health care. 

People of McAllen are not in better health than the people of El Paso.

We need to know where our information comes from, so we can evaluate whether it is “information” or whether someone is manipulating us with scare tactics.

We should demand in-depth reporting over the latest talking point, and be willing to give information like the Dartmouth report our attention. 

As people of faith, we have a responsibility to ask questions, check sources, listen intently and discern manipulation.

Nancy Minard, Editorial Team