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Time to call out the media for uncritically reprinting 'Fraser Facts'

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Lorne Gunter

Claims by the market-fundamentalist Fraser Institute widely rebroadcast by mainstream media that private health insurance in the United States costs less than the Canadian taxes required to support public health care are false and omit important data that would have dramatically changed the calculation.

The news story published across Canada on Sept. 20 without balance or reaction also fudges facts, such as the typical Canadian family's size and income, to come up with a misleadingly high estimate of more than $11,000 for what Canadian families pay each year in taxes for public health care.

Of course, as CUPE economist Toby Sanger observed in an excellent Sept. 25 post on the Progressive Economics Forum, "this is all completely false, as anyone who actually takes the time to read the seven-page report and do some very basic on-line research can easily find."

While the corporate-financed Fraser Institute's employees are more propagandists that researchers, they are undoubtedly competent, so it is very hard to believe that the omissions and misinterpretations in their report and press release were mere accidents.

Rather, they fall into a category of information that might be generously called "Fraser Facts" -- not quite true, but truthy enough to persuade a casual reader the group's market-fundamentalist nostrums might hold water.

Typical news coverage of the multi-million-dollar propaganda house’s latest "research" credulously repeated the Fraser Institute's claim, and gave no indication of the organization’s obvious market-fundamentalist bias, its history of shoddy ideologically motivated research or its cozy ties to private health care corporations or the federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Vancouver Sun’s unidentified stenographer devoted 237 words to the report, just enough for the “Fraser Facts,” which became the basis of coverage throughout the country, none of which gave any hint of the Fraser Institute's bias or suggested that the group's report was anything but the product of legitimate research.

Sun News columnist Lorne Gunter, a relentless purveyor of market-fundamentalist fairy tales, went further, devoting acres of space and claiming as if it were fact that the bogus $11,400 figure cooked up by the Fraser Institute "is more than a comparable American family pays for private insurance since most Americans have all or some of their costs covered by employers." (Emphasis added.)

All but about 160 million of them, that is, which is actually more than half, if you believe the U.S. Census Bureau, and fewer every day thanks to the U.S. corporate sector's continuing drive to eliminate unions and slash worker benefits into nonexistence.

But never mind that just now, and never mind the huge advantages for Canadian employers of their much-lower costs for health insurance, which provides our Canadian companies with a significant advantage over their U.S. competitors -- foreigners for whom, it could be argued, the Fraser Institute is paid to advocate against the interests of Canadians.

Of course, the taxes actually paid by Canadian families for health care could be reduced if businesses, including foreign-owned companies, paid their fair share. But I guess we all know where the Fraser Institute would stand on that question: Foursquare in favour of shifting the tax burden even more away from corporations and onto families!

Regardless, an honest assessment of the family tax cost of public health care is much lower than the Fraser Institute's massaged number, which is reached in part by ratcheting up the income of the typical Canadian family to more than $100,000 per year.

Based on one analysis of figures from the respected Canadian Institute for Health Information, which are acknowledged in the Fraser report but neither mentioned nor explained in the media coverage, the average cost for Canadian families was $7,670 in 2011.

The Fraser Institute's report and the media coverage about it also willfully forget to note the costs to U.S. taxpayers of supporting that country's inefficient and inequitable private health care system. In fact, as is well known, overall public spending on health care is much lower in Canada than in the United States, thanks to the efficiencies of our single-payer system. According to the World Health Organization, total spending per person on health care in Canada was $3,867 in 2008, versus $7,164 per person in the United States!

Now let's return to Gunter's preposterous claims about the costs faced by Americans who have their health insurance covered by an employer. First of all, Gunter neglects to mention private insurance deductibles for Americans who make claims against their private health insurance -- $10,000 deductibles are quite common. Even families with employer-sponsored insurance can expect to pay between $1,300 and very close to $4,000 a year on deductibles.

CUPE's Sanger writes: "The cheapest medical insurance my cousin, who is a doctor at a family clinic in New Hampshire, could get for his three person family was $10,000 a year with an $8,000 deductible -- and they are all in excellent health and physical shape. In effect it’s catastrophic health insurance. He's fortunate and can deal directly with his family's medical problems. Most of course can't."

It's no wonder that the reason most people go bankrupt in the United States is because of medical problems, even among those with health insurance.

Nor does Gunter mention "co-payments" -- a term most Canadians are unfamiliar with, meaning a fee that must be paid by the insured person each time a medical service is accessed -- which potentially add thousands of additional dollars to his underestimated U.S. costs. And heaven help you if you're the parents of twins or a premature infant -- you can expect your co-payments to cost more and also to face caps on what insurers will cover.

Then Gunter compares the total cost of the Canadian system with the cost of premiums alone south of the Medicine Line -- a calculation that it is fair to say misleads readers by failing to mention the huge burden on U.S. taxpayers caused by that country’s system's inefficiencies.

In fact, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average cost of health care insurance premiums in the United States was $15,745 this year!

In other words, even at the Fraser Institute's pumped-up bogus rate of $11,000, public health care is a bargain for Canadian families.

News coverage of the Fraser Institute paper made much of the claim that since 2002 "the cost of health care insurance for the average Canadian family increased by 59.8 per cent before inflation." But the Fraser Institute and media failed to mention the comparable figure for the United States, where the same cost for the average U.S. family increased by 97 per cent over the same 10 years.

Even so, if you read it carefully and critically, the Fraser report actually confirms what a good deal Canadian public health care is. But the Fraser Institute's conclusions, and the media coverage of them, have more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.

Look, the Fraser Institute publishes nothing but what can generously be termed whoppers. Its research is not research. At best it is propaganda.

Despite its name, the Fraser Institute is not an "institute," and its "senior fellows" are not academic researchers, as their jumped-up title implies. They are PR flacks for the newly privatized and corporatized ministry of propaganda.

That's OK, by the way. Canada is still a free country, after a fashion, and they're paid very handsomely to write fiction by the Tea-Party-financing Koch Brothers and many others of their ilk.

But the mainstream media needs to be called out immediately and vociferously every time it reprints this nonsense without explanation or reaction as if it were based on legitimate research.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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