Diagnosis: Hyperventilating reporters and badly strained metaphors

A personal perspective

Can the health care bill be resuscitated? Is it in critical condition? Or is the legislation heading for a full recovery?

And will all the drama be too much for us?

By nature, health policy isn’t a “sexy” subject. It doesn’t hold the excitement or mystique of wars, foreign crises and high-stakes diplomacy. There’s rarely a glam factor in analyzing the inner workings or Medicare Part B or the long-term impact of hospital mergers.

Health policy is dry, detail-driven, technical and — yes — complicated, as President Trump has acknowledged.

Of late, however, health care experts and journalists covering health policy have been working in the spotlight, not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for almost 200 days. Since Trump took office, he and the Republican-dominated Congress have tried to make good on their campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Since only a year ago the ACA seemed secure, the possibility that it might be scrapped is big news.

The political results of the GOP effort have been modest so far. What’s clear, however, is that the continuous debate over repeal and replace, repeal only, maybe rebuild and repair, or simply do nothing, has pushed health care reporters to reach desperately for handy medical metaphors, one after another.

Clearly, the metaphors are booming — and blooming, too — in the news media. Just look at the newspaper headlines in the past few months, trying to capture the status of the GOP health care bill as it entered yet another congressional loop . . . and kept collapsing.

News media frequently felt compelled to call Code Blue. The bill became a patient. It was in critical condition (constantly, really) and often on life support.

It sometimes slipped into a brief coma. It went through multiple near-death experiences and more than once needed CPR, when some of its provisions turned out to be a pill too bitter for some lawmakers to swallow.

Commentators from the left have mocked the Republican plan in its varying stages as a murky bill of health, and they’ve pronounced it dead on arrival (or DOA, which sounds even worse).

Their colleagues from the right have used similarly grim imagery when describing the state of Obamacare, which they say is in a death spiral, or is already on its deathbed.

In television news, certain kinds of hospital stock footage are in high demand these days: Ventilators, EKG monitors (with those ominous flat lines), patients being rushed into ERs and doctors working frantically in ICUs.

Radio producers have tapped into their well-stocked audio archives, alternating between a variety of ambulance sounds, code blue alarms, beeping heart monitors and, of course, the ever-popular whirr that signals flat-lining.

For us health care reporters, it’s been an interesting ride and a booster shot (!) for our (often under-stimulated) creative writing skills, but frankly, it’s getting old. And annoying. Really. There are only so many corny puns and only so much cheesy medical poetry we can expect our readers, viewers and listeners to take.

So, I’m asking America’s lawmakers to help us out here.

Please, triage your political priorities (I just can’t let it go . . .) and agree on something (reasonable, of course). Like a clear path forward. Health care is complicated, sure, but we all need a break. So we can report that finally, the patient is in stable condition. Code Clear.

And most importantly, we can stop writing medical puns. At least for now.

Katja Ridderbusch is an independent newspaper reporter and radio producer in Atlanta.