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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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How's that for objective news?

What's interesting is that the speech Malcolm Gladwell delivered at the 2012 AHIP conference in Salt Lake City made almost the same argument as this 1992 Washington Post article: it blamed the sorry state of America's healthcare system on high labor costs while completely ignoring the role of private health insurance companies. Although in 2012, Gladwell smartly ditched the politically charged word “labor” and, using a bit of his PR magic, replaced it with a quirky, seemingly harmless description of the problem. Instead of saying “labor,” he explained that the U.S. medical system was broken because it did not eliminate “chauffeurs”—by which he meant that the medical industry wasn't replacing its workers with machines and automation fast enough. According to Gladwell, medical customers needed to assume control of their own medical well being. 

How would consumers “assume control”? By administering their own medical care, that's how! 

Gladwell held up the iPhone as an example of cutting-edge technology that could be used to spruce up the medical healthcare system and to drag it kicking and screaming into the future by being used to “significantly reduce the number of physician office visits.” That's right. The problem with healthcare had nothing to do with for-profit health insurance companies funneling their customers' premiums into executive bonuses and dividend payouts for shareholders, while giving nothing of value to their customers in return. It's because people still have the antiquated idea that medical care should be administered by trained medical professionals—as in doctors and nurses. Notice how Gladwell frames cutting medical care, reducing face-to-face time with doctors and engineering mass layoffs of medical professionals as positive developments. It's all about empowering consumers!

A decade earlier, he was still much more candid about his position on private health insurance. In 2000, four years after leaving theWashington Post, Gladwell took part in a Washington Monthly  forum on healthcare that explored the differences between Canada and the U.S. He did not mince words, saying that he considered Canadian medical care to be “third world.” As a Canadian national who lived in the country until his early twenties, Gladwell's opinion carried a lot of weight. And he put that “credibility” to full use, describing a 1984 incident in which an eye injury he received falling off a bike was misdiagnosed and nearly led to life-threatening complications. This was supposedly due to the fact that Canada had to ration medical care because of a lack of CT scans. Gladwell then used this single incident to illustrate a broader point he said applied to the entire Canadian public healthcare system. 

Gladwell's claim that Canada's healthcare system was more likely to lead to death did not hold water, but it did sound suspiciously similar to a claim made in a 2010 anti-healthcare reform ad run by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. The ad featured a Canadian woman, who said that she was forced to seek treatment for her brain tumor in the United States or face  imminent death: “If I had waited for treatment in my government-run health care system, I'd be dead.” It didn't take long for a  Canadian newspaper to discover that the woman's “brain tumor” was not a tumor, nor was it in her brain. It was actually a non-life-threatening cyst . . . on her pituitary gland!

So in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell's proclamations on healthcare were straight out of the lobbyist handbook. Yet by 2005, Gladwell had apparently flip-flopped on the healthcare issue, suddenly proclaiming that his previous assessment was wrong: maybe government-run healthcare wasn't totally evil after all. What made him change his mind? Well, that's not clear. But the explanation Gladwell gave on his blog for his  sudden conversion was not at all convincing: "The bigger reason is simply that I woke up one day and realized what much smarter people than me realized a long time ago…"

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