Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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The one Obamacare story that nobody should read

A Texas reporter's ill-informed quest to find Obamacare "losers" is a sad commentary on modern journalism.

The one Obamacare story that nobody should read

Willow Kanowshy listens during an Affordable Care Act information session in the student union on Oct. 1 at Phoenix College in Phoenix.
Willow Kanowshy listens during an Affordable Care Act information session in the student union on Oct. 1 at Phoenix College in Phoenix. Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic, via AP

Okay, maybe you can make the case that five days is a small sample size, but I'm going to go out on a limb and declare 2014 the worst year in the history of American journalism. I mean, just today, someone at the New York Post (I know, I know) thought that THIS was a good idea for a front page headline, while someone else at CNN decided to cover a fatal small plane crash in Aspen with a story comprised of (I'm not making this up) celebrity tweets.

Oh yeah, and also this happened.

But then we're still reeling from some of the crimes and misdemeanors that occurred in journalism in 2013. Consider the mostly awful coverage of the launch of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Yes, there have been mistakes and unforgivable glitches in the rollout, most notably with the website, and you know about these because someone in the media wrote about them. (Here are two stories about Obamacare that I thought were good...one negative and one positive.)

But too often, especially in the weeks after the website failed and people who'd been canceled in the transition by the private insurers yet couldn't get new policies on the web, editors in newsrooms went to reporters and did not ask them to spend some time finding our what's really going on with health care. No, journalists were ordered simply to find "Obamacare horror stories"...ASAP.

That is exactly what happened at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. What happened next probably won't surprise you:

Yesterday 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.”

So the journalist who wrote this excellent fact-checking piece, Maggie Mahar, did some more digging. She found out that three of the purported "losers" were anti-Obama activists involved in their local Tea Party. Two of them hadn't really bothered to check to see if they could get comparable or better coverage under Healthcare.gov. What's more, the MS-suffering mother Whitney Johnson had gone online after the Star-Telegram article and found new insurance for much less than $1000-a-month, in line with Mahar's research -- but the paper showed no interest in revisiting an article whose main point had been undermined.

It was much easier for Mahar to find the multiple flaws in the article than to get answers from editors at the newspaper or the reporter who wrote the article. Finally, though, she did connect with the young reporter, who conceded that she had no expertise in health care and that this was just one of "about 15 things" that she covers for the Texas newspaper. Her editors only gave her about a day and a half to work on the article, and to speed things up a source who is an insurance broker helped her find interviewees but didn't tell her they were active in the Tea Party. Said the reporter: "Our staff is much smaller than it used to be,"

A couple of things. On the health care front. I happen to agree with Michael Moore (imagine that!) that Obamacare is flawed...because it doesn't go far enough. But the evidence remains clear, that on the scale between doing nothing and exposing millions of people in one of the world's richest nations to unnecessary sickness or medical bankruptcy or both, or a sweeping single-payer style program, the Affordable Care Act is a solid step in the right direction. I would imagine that at least a few of the 9 million people getting insurance through Obamacare would agree with that.

On the shoddy journalism front, it's easy to totally trash the reporter or her editors, and while there's no doubt they could have done a lot better, the problems with the Star-Telegram are really endemic to the whole industry right now. All but a handful of large newspapers have eliminated the health care beat, even as hospitals have become the largest non-governmental employers in most major cities (especially in the Rust Belt where newsrooms are also struggling the most). There's no evil ulterior motive -- it's simply because the model to pay for that level of smart news coverage has collapsed. That's tragic because underfunded -- and as a consequence, bad -- journalism can still have an outsized influence on the public conversation about the big issues...like health care. It's something we're going to need to think about as things play out in Philadelphia in 2014.

What exactly is the public cost of bad information?

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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