The best thing about being a reporter is having a press pass that allows you to attend a variety of interesting and fun events.
During the past month I was in San Diego for the Republican National Convention and at the White House for the ceremony marking President Clinton's signing of the health insurance reform legislation Congress approved in August. Having only seen past conventions through the eyes of the major networks, I was surprised to find the gala was much more interesting in person than on television.
There was an incredible amount of whining and complaining from the network news organizations about how scripted and generally unnewsworthy both parties' conventions were. ABC's Ted Koppel left the GOP convention in a huff and skipped the Dems' gathering in Chicago. Now there's discussion that the networks may leave coverage of the 2000 conventions to CNN, C-SPAN and the Comedy Channel (and, of course, MODERN HEALTHCARE).
So much the better. By covering the conventions for only an hour a night, the networks missed the best speeches, nearly everything to do with healthcare and most of the flavor of the events.
The fact is, their coverage was poor and their complaints were unfounded. From a healthcare standpoint, the conventions were informative and illuminating. It was easy to discern what each party proposed to do with Medicare, Medicaid, the uninsured and other pressing health issues. And the contrasts are stark.
For the most part, the Republicans treated healthcare issues as if they were Democratic issues. Sen. William Frist, M.D. (R-Tenn.), gave the primary GOP health speech. He did not waiver from the GOP message that Republicans wanted to reform Medicare and reduce projected spending to save the program while Clinton was playing politics and ignoring Medicare's impending financial crisis. Frist also took a few partisan shots at the Clinton administration's failed healthcare reform plan, which he called "a Washington-based, one-size-fits-all system."
Frist offered no new GOP health initiatives in his speech, aside from promising to attack the traditional whipping boy: fraud and abuse. (Thankfully, he refrained from claiming the Democrats supported fraud and abuse.)
But afterward, on the floor of the convention, Frist painted a different, more activist picture of GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. "Medicare reform is going to be a huge issue, and Bob Dole recognizes that Medicare is the No. 1 challenge next year," Frist said. Interestingly, Frist was the only speaker who trumpeted the recently passed health insurance reform plan.
When asked why Republicans weren't taking more credit for healthcare reform, Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Terrence Group shook his head and said he thought one mention was one too many. "There should only be one message and it's not healthcare," Goeas said, not detailing what the message should be.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic convention in Chicago was a different story. Riding high in the polls and surrounded by a generally liberal crowd, the Democrats unveiled one new health program after another. First were health insurance subsidies for the unemployed. After that came healthcare for children.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the White House healthcare task force into the breach, reiterated her support for her plan. Apparently, she thinks it should rise again like methane from a trash heap.
The issue that most quickly and completely degenerated into partisan squabbling, and which drew the most applause from the delegates, was Medicare. One Democratic speaker after another took credit for "saving Medicare" from unspeakable Republican acts. For their part, Republicans made it sound as if Democrats had no Medicare reform proposal at all.
What was never mentioned at either convention was how close the final Medicare proposals of the two sides were in last year's budget negotiations-less than a percentage point of growth a year for the six-year span of the budget agreements.
The second best thing about being a reporter is that you're never obligated to clap for anyone or anything. Working in Washington, that comes in handy at political rallies and conventions.
Last month's ceremony at which the president signed health insurance reform into law was a typical example.
Because this was the first piece of meaningful healthcare legislation that has been enacted since I joined MODERN HEALTHCARE more than five years ago, it was my first signing ceremony.
The event was well-orchestrated and very festive. The Marine Corps band played marches and Broadway show tunes as more than 500 healthcare lobbyists, legislators and others whose fingerprints were on the bill gathered on the south lawn of the White House.
In his remarks, the president thanked Mrs. Clinton and White House health aides in an attempt to link the Clinton healthcare task force and its product with the health insurance plan sponsored by Sens. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
The truth is somewhat different. First, the president's call for passage of the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill in his State of the Union address jump-started negotiations that had been stalled for months.
Second, both the Clinton proposal and the Kassebaum-Kennedy plan fall under the general heading of "healthcare reform," and there were even some common elements to the bills. But saying the White House plan led to the passage of the insurance reform bill is like saying Hitler was responsible for the Marshall Plan.
One interesting note. White House adviser and former healthcare guru Ira Magaziner attended the signing. But even though he was the architect of the White House plan Clinton saluted, Magaziner wasn't among those selected for praise.
The president's tortuous attempt to make it seem as if Congress had passed a version of his bill wasn't lost on the audience, which gave that portion of his speech noticeably less applause. Afterward, several people had the same "Who is he kidding?" comment.
As an objective observer in the audience, I didn't have to clap.