Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reporting on Obamacare - Is There a Journalist in the House?

Taking a look at the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, I see that a journalist should, "test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error." Or, as a huge sign at the City News Bureau of Chicago used to remind young news reporters, "IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT."

Jobs in journalism are getting harder and harder to find. This makes professional standards such as the Code of Ethics more important than ever.  If paid reporters are going to distinguish themselves from the two-bit-opinion bloggers like me, then they need to, among other things, report news stories accurately.

This is why I'm baffled by the recent phenomenon of "Obamacare Victim" interviews. In these interviews, popular with cable news since the web site went live in October, a good citizen recounts their shock at finding out that their new health insurance will cost them much more than their perfectly good insurance did before. The fact that these stories aren't true is beside the point. The question is: why aren't journalists either verifying or refuting these stories before they report them?

 Case in point. This CBS News report explained last month that, "people are losing their existing insurance plans," because, "requirements in the law, like prenatal and prescription drug coverage, mean their old plans aren't comprehensive enough." We are then introduced to Dianne Barrette, a 56-year-old Florida resident, who was recently informed that her new plan will increase from $54 to $591 per month.

Shocking! Except here's what that report didn't tell you. First, Dianne isn't being asked to pay more than ten times as much for, "prenatal and prescription drug coverage." In reality, her current "plan" isn't actually health insurance, and even Dianne isn't aware of how little she's getting for her money. As blogger Heavy Mettle of notes, "Ms. Barrette goes on to say that this 'insurance' is perfect for what she needs: a doctor visit copay and prescription copay, and maybe some outpatient services. It turns out that she actually had that reversed and the insurance company paid a $50 'copay' towards a doctor visit, and $15 for prescriptions, and she herself was responsible for all the rest of the costs." "Now this is exactly the type of junk insurance Obamacare is meant to do away with, and it is not surprising that people don't know what their insurance covers."

Nancy Metcalf of Consumer Reports also followed up on Dianne's story, and came up with the same information,

"Barrette’s expiring policy is a textbook example of a junk plan that isn’t real health insurance at all." "She's paying $650 a year to be uninsured," Karen Pollitz, an insurance expert at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, said. "I have to assume that she never really had to make much of a claim under this policy. She would have lost the house she's sitting in if something serious had happened. I don't know if she knows that." "So, using tools available through I determined that she qualifies for a premium subsidy of $320 a month. She can use that to purchase a Humana Direct Silver 4600/6300 plan for $165 a month."

Some of this information also came to light as the result of the a follow-up interview with Dianne Barrette on Fox News. Putting aside the irony of Fox News actually correcting the mistakes of another news outlet, the interview in question also uncovered the fact that CBS News failed to report a key fact regarding Dianne and her new health insurance options. As Timothy Christopher of notes, the Blue Cross plan in question, "was only one of many plans Dianne has to choose from, 10 of which are cheaper than that $591, and based on her income, she’d only pay around $209 a month." Although CBS News did mention that Dianne might qualify for a subsidy, they failed to investigate and report on the fact that Dianne will only have to pay about a third of the quoted price of $591 for what is real health insurance. And again, why did CBS refer to Dianne's current plan, which provides only small co-pays for a few services, as "insurance?" To me, that's like referring to quack nostrums such as Bonnore's Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid which claimed, among other things, to cure cholera, epilepsy, and scarlet fever, as "medicine."

On October 28 NBC News aired a virtually identical "Obamacare rate shock" story, also chock full of misleading information. That report introduces us to Deborah Cavallaro, someone, "who buys her own insurance." Paul Waldman of the The American Prospect summarizes the rest of the story,

"We learn in this story that her insurer is cancelling her current plan, which costs $293 a month, because it doesn't comply with the new law. They've offered her a new plan at $484 a month." The report tells us that, "the administration points out that many people will get subsidies to offset the higher costs." So what about Deborah? Is she going to get subsidies? (The report) doesn't say, but she well may, which would mean she wouldn't be paying more, or might actually be paying less."

"But wait. Maybe she's not a victim after all. How does the $484 plan her current insurer is offering compare to the other ones she could get? Did she or the reporter go to the California exchange and try to figure that out? Apparently, they didn't. But I did."

"It took less than 60 seconds. Let's assume that Deborah has a high enough income that she isn't eligible for subsidies. I put in that I was 45 years old and got nine different choices for a Bronze plan, which in all likelihood most closely resembles what Deborah has now. The average monthly cost was $258, or $35 a month less than what Deborah's paying now for her bare-bones plan. And that's for a plan that, while it's the least expensive option, almost certainly involves less cost-sharing that what Deborah has to deal with now. She can get a Silver plan, with more generous coverage, for $316, only $23 more than she's paying now. Congratulations, Deborah!"

In closing, I'd like to return to Dianne Barrette one more time. Now that she's fully aware about the quality, affordable health insurance available to her through Obamacare, how does she feel? Jonathan Cohn of the the New Republic, spoke to her, and,

"I would jump at it," she said. "With my age, things can happen. I don’t want to have bills that could make me bankrupt. I don’t want to lose my house."

Barrette can't be sure until she sees the numbers for herself. And so far she hasn't been able to do so, thanks to the technological problems at But as she’s become more aware of her options, she said, she’s no longer aghast at losing her plan—and curious to see what alternatives are available. "Maybe," she told me, "it’s a blessing in disguise."

Too bad CBS News doesn't have any real journalists, or Dianne might have been aware of the benefits of Obamacare a lot sooner.