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How Malcolm Gladwell Shilled for the Health Care Lobby ... and Got Away with It

Gladwell has carried water for the health insurance companies in his articles, while getting paid for numerous speaking engagements to the industry.

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We also co-sponsored in December a policy minibriefing on health care for a broad cross-section of the Center's Alumni Council, and are now working with the Journalism Center in the development a major health care reform policy conference (tentatively scheduled for late April/early May) that will debunk the myths of the Clinton plan, explain the ill-advised proposals to fund any such plan with excise taxes, and promote alternative, market-driven plans . The forum will be chaired by Sen . Gramm (R-TX), and will have considerable participation from legislators, media and friendly policy group personnel. 

Whatever they taught at the National Journalism Center, it must have made a big impression on young Gladwell, because he started boosting for the health insurance companies almost as soon as he graduated from college, stepping in to defend the industry at key times when it was threatened by reform.

Malcolm Gladwell's decades-long history of shilling for the health insurance industry provides a perfect example of the mix of undisclosed conflicts of interest, lucrative speaking fees and journalistic fraud and corruption that has become such a defining characteristic of Gladwell's career. It's worth examining this in detail and putting it into its proper historical context, especially because Malcolm Gladwell has recently refashioned himself into a supporter of healthcare reform.

As a business reporter for the Washington Post in the early and mid-1990s, Malcolm Gladwell frequently wrote about the topic of healthcare and health insurance. And it just so happened that his articles seemed always in sync with the interests and policy priorities of private health insurance companies.

In March 1992, while Bill Clinton was campaigning for President, Gladwell wrote a Washington Post article titled “Why Canada's Health Plan Is No Remedy for America.” In it, he made a case against creating a Medicare-type program that would cover all Americans, arguing that if the “national health-insurance system were adopted in the United States, the way residents in the Washington region would receive care from hospitals and doctors would change almost beyond recognition”—and by “change” he meant “change for the worse.” According to Gladwell, universal coverage would have devastating effects on the country's medical system. It would translate into lower overall quality of care and—scariest of all—would lead to medical rationing, forcing doctors to make decisions about who gets medical care and who doesn't. 

Medical rationing—it's the same old PR scare the health-insurance lobby whips out every time it feels under threat, just like it did during President Obama's push for healthcare reform in 2009, when Rep. Michele Bachman and other Tea Party Republicans kept screaming about concentration camps and government-mandated “death panels” that would put grandmas to death because it cost too much to care for them.

That same year, in 1992, Gladwell wrote another article for the Washington Post on the health insurance industry,  this one titled “Reforming the Health Care System: An American Paradox.” Among other things, Gladwell claimed Americans were happy with the medical system and blamed the rising costs of medical care not on insurance companies or for-profit hospitals, but on the labor costs of nurses and medical staff. Gladwell concluded the article with a bleak outlook: the only thing that healthcare industry can do is to limit the amount of time patients spend with doctors.

How did Gladwell come to that conclusion? Well, it helped that all the experts he quoted in the article had worked for or received funding directly from the health insurance industry: One expert was Leonard Schaffer, a Blue Cross of California executive. The other was John Hoff, whom Gladwell described as a “health care specialist and lawyer in Washington.” What Gladwell failed to mention was that Mr. Hoff had worked for the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, both corporate think-tanks that have been long involved in the fight against healthcare reform. The third quoted expert was John Sheils, a man Gladwell simply described as “a Washington health economist.” In reality, Sheils worked for the Lewin Group, a management consulting company that provided services for the health insurance industry, and is now an actual subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, the largest health insurance company in America. UnitedHealth Group made over $5 billion in profits in 2011. 

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