During the tumultuous roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, the media struggled to find stories of people who had successfully bought insurance through healthcare.gov, and many landed on sources that turned out to be unreliable. But now, another dubious narrative is all the rage: the Obamacare horror story. Bob talks to health policy writer Maggie Mahar, who is very suspicious of the nightmarish tales reported in the media.
BOB GARFIELD: Back in October, when healthcare.gov was foundering on its shakedown cruise, we reported on the case of Chad Henderson, a young man who supposedly had successfully navigated the federal health exchange, except it emerged that Henderson was active in a pro-Obamacare advocacy group and that he hadn’t actually enrolled for Affordable Health Act coverage. Here is Politico’s Kyle Cheney telling us how he got suckered by a partisan ringer.
KYLE CHENEY: We were clear that this was a, an Obama supporter that described in great detail getting through the, the enrollment process and selecting a plan and talking about his inability to get insurance from the time he was six years old. All the facts were on the table, and the only fact that wasn’t on the table was that he hadn’t actually enrolled.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, now that the exchange is up and running, another dubious narrative is all the rage, the Obamacare horror story, tales of people whose health insurance policies have been canceled and who now face either skyrocketing premiums or no insurance at all. Maggie Mahar is a health policy writer who, steeped in the details of the Affordable Care Act, became very suspicious of the nightmares being described in the media. Maggie, welcome to On the Media.
MAGGIE MAHAR: Hi.
BOB GARFIELD: Your inquiry started when you saw a piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about local Fort Worth Obamacare nightmares. Tell me about that story.
MAGGIE MAHAR: It was a very compelling story. She was a 26-year-old new mother with a two-month-old, and she was suffering from MS. She needed very expensive medication. And after her policy was canceled, she said that the only insurance she could find would cost her over $1,000. I knew that couldn't be true. First of all, under Obamacare insurers cannot charge you more because of a preexisting condition. Secondly, under Obamacare 20-somethings pay very low premiums, compared to older people. I went online. I plugged in her name, the county she lived in, the fact that she was trying to insure one person and found that she could get insurance on the exchange for roughly 350 a month.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that there is your due diligence -
MAGGIE MAHAR: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: - apparently [LAUGHS] not exercised by the FortWorth Star-Telegram, in the first instance. So you finally did catch up with the reporter and confronted her with the facts that you've just enumerated. What did she say?
MAGGIE MAHAR: She told me that she was given two days to do the story. Her editor said, find people whose policies are canceled and are now left in a quagmire. So she put out messages to friends, to an insurance broker, looking for people, interviewed them and wrote the story, all in one and a half days.
It turned out, when I checked the people in the story -there were four of them – three belonged to the Tea Party. Two of them didn't even go to the exchange because they didn't want anything to do with Obamacare. Nevertheless, the paper described these people as victims of Obamacare.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you don't think that the Star-Telegram was intentionally propagandizing for House Republicans.
MAGGIE MAHAR: No, I don't.
BOB GARFIELD: But everything else about this assignment seemed almost destined to produce shoddy journalism. How does something like this come to pass?
MAGGIE MAHAR: Lack of resources, first of all. The reporter told me that she doesn't really write about healthcare very often. She told me she knew very little about the Affordable Care Act. She covers 15 different beats. That's a problem, to start with. Secondly, more and more journalists all over, not just at this paper, when they talk about healthcare reform, they don't cover the policy; they cover the politics. They cover it as if it's a sporting event - who’s winning, who’s losing?
BOB GARFIELD: Does this really scary anecdote about the danger of stories with really scary anecdotes go beyond the Fort Worth incident, or is it an outlier?
MAGGIE MAHAR: No, unfortunately, it's become quite commonplace. I'm not the only journalist who’s fact-checked these stories. Another story was on CBS and on three Fox shows. A woman named Wanda Barrette, she claimed that her premiums were jumping from $54 to 591, after her policy was canceled. It turned out, when someone at the Washington Post checked it, that her insurance that was only $54 was junk insurance. It didn't cover hospitalization. In other words, if she landed in the hospital, her insurance would not pay one penny. That's not insurance. Then there was a woman who appeared on NBC and CBS. Her name was Deborah Cavallaro.
DEBORAH CAVALLARO: I am currently p - paying $293 a month, and under Obamacare, depending on the plan that I go with, it’s anyplace from 478 to $500 a month. And that's for a quote, “comparable plan” to what I have. However, it is not comparable, in that I cannot go to my, my doctors or my hospital.
DEBORAH CAVALLARO: So tell - explain to me how it's better for me.
MAGGIE MAHAR: Someone at the American Prospect checked that story, found out that, in fact, with a subsidy she could get insurance for $258. That's $35 less than her canceled policy.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you are a reporter and you’re clearly well versed in healthcare policy, but you also sound very much like an advocate for Obamacare. How are our listeners to conclude that you, yourself, are not skewing your fact-checking in order to bolster a political position?
MAGGIE MAHAR: I'm not an advocate for Obamacare. I'm an advocate for the truth. I've read the entire law three times. I know what's in it. And so, when I read accounts of the legislation that are not true, I write about it.
And, unfortunately, we do know that many people who oppose Obamacare have said things that simply aren't true, and they’ve been printed and repeated. For instance, John Boehner tweeted the Fort Worth Telegram story, put it on his website and he tweeted it. This means that John Boehner either doesn't know that no 26-year-old would be asked to pay $1,000 a month or he does know that and didn't care about the truth.
BOB GARFIELD: As a news consumer, what should we first do when we see these anecdotal tales spun out for us?
MAGGIE MAHAR: Obviously, every reader isn’t going to fact check every story, and shouldn't have to. But if something strikes you as unlikely or odd, you can go to Google and very quickly check at least one fact.
BOB GARFIELD: And to the reporters who, as you described earlier, get assigned a healthcare story and have no grounding in healthcare policy and they come up with the perfect poster child for a – premise, what advice have you for them?
MAGGIE MAHAR: Google their name and “Democrat,” Google their name and “Tea Party,” Google their name and “Republican.” It's really very easy nowadays to do a background check on somebody, to see if they have an axe to grind, one way or the other. And that's what you want to know. You want to make sure that they're just an ordinary American and they’re not stumping for something or someone.
BOB GARFIELD: Maggie, thank you.
MAGGIE MAHAR: Okay, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Maggie Mahar is the editor of Health Beat blog. She is also author of the book, Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Healthcare Costs So Much.