Did the Administration Conceal the Fact That Millions Would Have to Replace Their Insurance With A New Policy?

At the end of October NBC’s Lisa Myers and Hannah Rappleye broke the story: “millions of Americans are getting or are about to get cancellation letters for their health insurance under Obamacare, say experts, and the Obama administration has known that for at least three years. Four sources deeply involved in the Affordable Care Act tell NBC News that 50 to 75 percent of the 14 million consumers who buy their insurance individually can expect to receive a ‘cancellation’” letter or the equivalent over the next year because their existing policies don’t meet the standards mandated by the new health care law. One expert predicts that number could reach as high as 80 percent. And all say that many of those forced to buy pricier new policies will experience ‘sticker shock.’

“Buried in Obamacare regulations from July 2010,” Myers and Rappleye reported, “is an estimate that because of normal turnover in the individual insurance market, “40 to 67 percent” of customers will not be able to keep their policy. That means the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them.”

In fact, NBC’s investigative team did not t need four unnamed sources “deeply involvthe ACA” to tip them off that millions of customers would be receiving these notices.

Three years earlier Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had called a press conference to announce that under the ACA, 43 million Americans working for small companies” would be moving to new plans.   Labor Secretary Hilda Solis joined her to explain that the new plans would give workers “all of the protections of Obamacare.” 

In a press release HHS spelled out the numbers: “roughly 42 million people insured through small businesses will likely transition from their current plan to one with the new Affordable Care Act protections over the next few years,” along with “17 million who are covered in the individual health insurance market.”  .

What about President Obama’s promise that “If you like your plan you can keep it”?  As I explain it the post above, when he first made this pledge, he was addressing “the majority” of insured Americans who worked for a large companies where they received generous benefits. These were the folks who “liked their plans,” and in a debate with Senator McCain, he was reassuring them that health reform would not mean dismantling employer-based insurance and moving to a single-payer system. But over time, candidate Obama made the mistake of letting his pledge turn into a sound bite. At that point, it became easy for his opponents rip that line out of its original context, and brand him a liar.

In 2013, when reporters claimed that people who received the “cancellation letters” were blind-sided, they ignored the fact people in the individual market often lost their policies. As HHS observed in its 2010 press release: “roughly 40% to two-thirds of people in the individual market normally change plans within a year,”  in part because carriers in that market routinely discontinued  policies.  Inevitably, the replacements they offered costs more and/or covered less. As a result,  Americans who purchased their own insurance were accustomed to scrambling, year after year, to find new coverage.  In the fall of 2013, neither they, nor reporters who knew anything about the individual market, should have been shocked when so many policy-holders discovered that they would not be able to renew their plans..

Was the News “Buried” In Obscure Obamacare Regulations?

Hardly. The New York Times covered the press conference in its A1 section, noting that, “the rules appear to fall short of the sweeping commitments President Obama made while trying to reassure the public” that they “could keep their current coverage if they like it.”  But, as the Times reported, the administration explained that  “this was just one goal of the legislation.” Another goal was to make sure, as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis put it when responding to a question “that insurers don’t take advantage of their customers.” 

Originally, the Affordable Care Act had stipulated that if an insurer sold a plan before March 2010, when the ACA passed, the carrier could continue to renew that plan—even if it didn’t meet the ACA’s standards. But reformers did not want to give carriers carte blanche. As Sebelius explained at the press conference: If, after 2010, insurers (or employers) made dramatic changes to a plan, hiking deductibles or reducing benefits (“for instance, deciding to stop covering  treatments for say, HIV/AIDS or cystic fibrosis,”)  it would be considered a new plan.  At that point, the insurer would no longer be able to renew the policy and would have offer a replacement that met the ACA’s requirements for consumer protection.

Back in June 2010 the New York Times was not the only major media outlet that publicizing the rules: Fox News issued a “Special Report,” which claimed that “up to 80 percent of small businesses and 64 percent of large businesses may have to give up the plans they had today within three years,” The Report even included a video of Sebelius making the announcement.

Yet in October of 2013 Fox would claim that the press conference never happened.  On Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy charged that the administration hid the facts.  “Back in 2010, they knew millions would lose [their coverage], and they didn’t say a word!”

Okay, I understand that most folks at Fox don’t start their day by skimming the New York Times. But don’t they watch Fox News?

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An Obamacare “Horror Story” That Just Isn’t True: How Did This Happen? Part 2

For months, health reform’s opponents have been trumpeting tales of Obamacare’s innocent victims – Americans who lost their insurance because it doesn’t comply with the ACA’s regulations, and now have to shell out more than they can afford – or go without coverage.

Trouble is, many of those stories just aren’t true.

Below I posted about a Fort Worth Star Telegram article that leads with the tale of Whitney Johnson, a 26-year-old new mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS). Her insurer just cancelled her policy, and according to Johnson, new insurance would cost her over $1,000 a month.

That claim stopped me in my tracks. Under the ACA, no 26-year-old could be charged $1,000 monthly – even if she has MS.

Obamacare prohibits insurers from charging more because a customer suffers from a pre-existing condition. This rule applies to all new policies, whether they are sold inside or outside the exchanges.

At that point, I knew that something was wrong.

When I checked the exchange – plugging in Johnson’s county and her age – I soon found a Blue Choice Gold PPO plan priced at $332 monthly (just $7 more than she had been paying for the plan that was cancelled). Co-pays to see a primary care doctor would run just $10 ($50 to visit a specialist) and she would not have to pay down the $1,500 deductible before the insurance kicked in.

My radar went up: Recently, I have been reading more and more reports regarding “fake Obamacare victims.”

Now I couldn’t help but wonder: Who are these folks in the Start-Telegram story? The paper profiled four people who supposedly had been hurt by Obamacare. When I Googled their names I soon discovered that three (including Johnson) wereTea Party members.

The paper describes them as among Obamacare’s “losers,” but the truth is that they didn’t want to be winners. Two hadn’t even attempted to check prices in the exchanges.

Meanwhile, it appeared no one at the Star-Telegram even attempted to run a background check on the sources, or fact-check their stories. I couldn’t help but wonder: “Why?”

The answer will surprise you.

Johnson finds affordable insurance …

When I tried to phone the reporter, she didn’t return multiple calls. Finally, I reached an editor at the paper. He told me that  both Yamil Berard, the reporter, and her editor were out of the office. I expressed my concern that inaccuracies in the story would discourage readers who were thinking about signing up in the exchanges. He suggested that I sounded like an “advocate” for Obamacare.

To my surprise, two hours later he called me back.

He had just received an internal email, he told me, which revealed that Whitney Johnson had found affordable insurance for $350 a month – just $25 more than the premium on her cancelled policy, and roughly what I thought she would pay in the exchange.

I asked the editor if he could send me a copy of the e-mail. “No,” he replied “It’s an internal memo.”

Would the paper publish a follow-up, acknowledging that Johnson would not have to pay $1,000 for coverage?

“I’m not sure what we’ll do with it.” He sounded cautious.

The Star-Telegram Doesn’t Tell Its Readers

To this day – more than a month after the story appeared – the Star-Telegram still hasn’t  published a follow-up, explaining that under Obamacare, no 20-something – including Johnson – will be charged $1,000 a month.

I then contacted Johnson, who confirmed that she had found a $350 Blue plan outside of the exchange. Based on the details she provided, I managed to locate it. (The premium is actually $347.92 a month.)

It turns out to be very similar to the exchange policy I had found. The premium is higher, but the deductible ($1,000 instead of $1,500) and co-pays for medications ($10/50/100 vs. $35/75/150) would be slightly lower. The provider network would be the same (Blue Choice).

The exchange plan offers a stronger safety net, and for someone with MS this could be important: If her husband’s income drops, or he loses health benefits at work, they would immediately be available for a subsidy. Because her new policy is not on the exchange, they would have to wait until open enrollment in November 2014 to sign up for a 2015 plan with subsidies.

I Talk to the Story’s Editor–and the Reporter 

Next, I spoke to Steve Kaskovich, the editor who assigned the story to Berard. He explained that he had asked the reporter to write a piece about people whose policies were cancelled, and as a result were “caught in the quagmire.”

I originally wrote this post for www.healthinsurance.org, an independent website (not connected to the insurance industry)where I, Wendell Potter, Hal Pollack, LInda Bertghold  and Louise Norris all blog.

To read the rest of this post click  here / and “Scroll down to Editor: Find People Caught In a Quagmire.” There you will discover what the editor had to say. When I finally talked to the  reporter, the truth came out. You can also hear me talking about the Star-Telegram piece –and problems with the way the media has been covering health care reform on NPR’s “Eye on the Media” . Click here: 

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The Media’s One-Sided Coverage of Obamacare

Why does the media continue to insist on promoting the conservative meme that “Obamacare is a disaster”? Today Bloomberg ran a story headlined “Health-Care Law Support Hits New Low, Poll Shows

The piece begins: “Support for President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law has reached its nadir, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released today. The survey shows 62 percent of Americans opposing the law, the highest total since CNN began polling on the issue in March 2010. Just 35 percent favored it. The health-care law has been plagued by a faulty website, hindering efforts to log in and buy insurance, and by the revelation that millions of Americans could not keep their health insurance as Obama originally promised.”

It would be more accurate to say: “Support has been plagued by a faulty website—and a media determined to bury the good news while exaggerating the bad news.”

The very next sentence of the Bloomberg piece illustrates what I’m talking about: “Of those opposing the law, 15 percent said the legislation didn’t go far enough.” (If you actually look at the poll, you will find that pollsters were more explicit: 15% said the law was “not liberal enough.)  Bloomberg continues: ““Another 43 percent said the measure was too liberal based on Republican proposals such as the health-care measure championed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.”

Here is a more accurate, cleaerer  lead:  “50 percent of those polled either like the law (35% ) or think that it isn’t liberal enough (15%).”

It also is worth noting that the percent of people who think the ACA isn’t liberal enough is rising: in May 11% said the law wasn’t sufficiently progressive; last month 14% voiced that complaint. In other words, as more people learn about the details of Obamacare, more think that it’s too conservative.)

That’s quite different from the lead the reporter chose: “The survey shows 62 percent of Americans oppose the law.” Most readers would assume that means 62% are opposed to reform, when in fact 50% either support reform or would have liked a more progressive bill.

A balanced story would emphasize that the country remains deeply divided about the overhaul of our health care system. That should have been the headline: “Half of all Americans Support Legislation Sixteen percent thought they would be “better off” while 40% said they expected to be about the same.”Designed to Make U.S. Healthcare Better, More Equitable, and More Affordable.”

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