More Americans afraid of health care overhaul; House Democrats reach deal with Blue Dogs.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 30 2009 6:26 AM

Fear Factor: Health Care Edition

The New York Timesand Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with new polls that show the American public is growing increasingly concerned that an overhaul of health care would have a negative impact in their own lives. The NYT highlights that the percentage of Americans who describe health care costs as a threat to the economy has gone down in the past month, suggesting that the public isn't buying one of President Obama's central arguments for the plan. The WSJ points out that last month respondents were evenly divided on the merits of the overhaul but now support has declined, particularly among those who are already insured. The Washington Postleads with, and the Los Angeles Timesoff-leads, House Democrats reaching an agreement with conservative members of their party that could help health care legislation pass the energy and commerce committee. The agreement seeks to cut more than $100 billion from the bill and would maintain the government-run insurance plan but change the way it operates.

The LAT leads with word that the military is shifting some of its Predator drone aircraft away from hunting al-Qaida operatives toward tracking the Taliban and aiding the general war effort in Afghanistan. The scarce drones are one of the military's "most precious intelligence assets," and the increased focus on the Taliban shows how U.S. officials now believe that the best way to beat al-Qaida is stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than hunting down individuals, although that will also continue. So more drones will be operated by conventional forces in Afghanistan and focus on tracking movements in insurgent strongholds. "We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused," said one U.S. official. USA Todayleads with a look at how more Americans are failing to pay their property taxes amid the recession, meaning that many who might have survived the foreclosure wave could eventually lose their homes to tax seizures. There's no national figure, but many localities have reported a sharp increase in the number of businesses and homeowners who aren't paying their tax bills at a time when local governments are already strapped for cash.

The NYT highlights that it seems opponents of health reform have managed to make their portrayal of the plan as a government takeover that would limit choice stick in the minds of the public. And with advertising against the plan set to increase now that lawmakers will head home for their summer break, these ideas are likely to increase. The WSJ notes that administration officials agree they may have misfired a bit by focusing so much on the difficult-to-understand issue of medical costs. Now, Obama is making more of an effort to talk up the consumer protection rules for insurance companies in order to appeal to those who already have coverage but are afraid of losing it for an arbitrary reason. In the WSJ poll, only 20 percent said they would have better care after the overhaul.

As usual with complicated issues, though, it's not clear the public really knows what it wants. The WSJ notes that when poll respondents were given details of the proposal, 56 percent said they favored it, while 38 percent opposed it. And the NYT points out that President Obama still has the advantage in winning public support for an overhaul since 49 percent say they support fundamental changes to the system and 66 percent are concerned about losing their own insurance. Respondents also overwhelmingingly—55 percent to 26 percent—think Obama has better ideas on health care than Republicans and is making more of an effort to work in a bipartisan manner.

The deal reached between key conservative Democrats and Rep. Henry Waxman would exclude more small businesses from the requirement that they provide health insurance by extending the exemption to companies that have an annual payroll of $500,000 rather than $250,000. The Blue Dog Democrats agreed to maintain a government-run insurance program, but only if it's de-linked from Medicare because of concern that the government would have such a competitive advantage that it would end up driving private insurers out of business. That means the government insurance program would have to negotiate separately with providers. Many Democrats expressed their displeasure at this compromise, particularly since a Blue Dog leader made it clear it was no guarantee that the majority of his caucus would support the legislation. Meanwhile, the Senate's group of six continues to negotiate, and Sen. Max Baucus said a draft of their reform package would cost $900 billion over a decade, which is slightly less expensive and comes under the psychologically important $1 trillion mark.

The NYT takes a look at how the physician-owned hospital that became famous when it was featured in a not-so-positive light in a widely discussed New Yorker piece  is a key donor to Democratic lawmakers. People affiliated with the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance have been donating big sums to candidates on both sides of the aisle and, so far, seem to be getting pretty much everything they wanted out of the health care debate. It's a minor issue in a huge piece of legislation, but the question is whether, as the New Yorker article claims, physician-owned hospitals make health care more expensive because doctors are motivated to order unnecessary tests and procedures since they get a share of the hospital's profits. While it looks like some limits will be imposed on physician-owned hospitals, existing facilities are likely to be allowed to continue as they are.

In a front-page piece, the WP takes a look at the question of whether Americans spend more on health care because the insurance they get through their employer isn't taxed. Many have said yes, and taxing at least some health benefits has received broad support. But what the Post calls a "vocal minority" has been eager to say that the ability of taxes to decrease costs has been overstated because consumers mostly just do what their doctors tell them. To these skeptics, "the dispute is a classic clash between economic abstractions and real-world practice," notes the paper. While in theory it should make sense that people spend more if it's tax-free, the reality is that the vast majority of people don't actually consume health care that way.

The NYT fronts a fascinating dispatch from an industrial city in northeast China, where more than 1,200 employees at a textile mill have come down with a variety of strange symptoms, including temporary paralysis, convulsions, and vomiting. Workers are convinced they were poisoned by toxic fumes from a nearby factory that produces aniline, a highly toxic chemical. Chinese health officials say this is all just a case of mass hysteria. And when a group of health experts visited a hospital that has been overwhelmed by patients since the factory opened they told bedridden workers to "get a hold of their emotions." Outside experts say that while it's possible that panic could lead people to describe symptoms that don't really exist, it's exceedingly rare to affect this many people at once. Plus, if this were indeed a case of paranoia to the extreme, the Chinese government is merely fueling the hysteria by being so secretive about everything.

When the Senate voted to end the F-22 fighter-jet program, many hoped it could signal the beginning of a new era in defense contracting. But today the WP makes it clear that few things have changed as the House gets ready to vote on a military spending bill that includes at least $6.9 billion of equipment that Defense Secretary Robert Gates says is not needed. The White House is urging lawmakers to take a cue from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and grab a huge knife, but both Republicans and Democrats have proven reluctant to cut lucrative programs for contractors that provide jobs and lots of campaign funds. Almost $3 billion of the extra funds would go to financing earmarks—pet projects demanded by individual lawmakers—and around half of that would go to projects specifically requested by private companies. "Members of Congress should not have the ability to award no-bid contracts," Rep.  Jeff. Flake, R-Ariz., who has long been a critic of earmarks, said.

The LAT takes a look at how the frequent dust storms in Iraq are a sign of how the country is suffering what some are characterizing as "an environmental catastrophe." Sandstorms are quite common in the region, but a two-year drought, coupled with years of land mismanagement, means there's dust everywhere, so storms are more frequent and last longer. The problem is so bad that a country once known for its agriculture has to import most of its food, meaning it has less money for reconstruction. "We're talking about something that's making the breadbasket of Iraq look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century," one expert said.

As Obama prepares to have beers with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley, the police sergeant who arrested Gates, the WSJ takes a look at how some aren't too happy with what they'll be drinking. There are those who don't think the president should be promoting alcohol in the first place. Why not just have a friendly conversation over a glass of lemonade or iced tea?  But the biggest outcry is coming from brewers. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested that each of the participant's favorite beers would be on hand: Red Stripe for Gates and Blue Moon for Crowley. The president will be drinking Bud Light. The problem? They're all made by foreign companies. "We would hope they would pick a family-owned, American beer to lubricate the conversation," said a spokesman for the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The head of Harpoon Brewery wanted to get his beer in the White House but didn't know how. "I think just showing up at the gate with a case of Harpoon would make them look at us funny."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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