Gene Lyons: Media misses full health insurance story
So here’s my advice: If you’re somebody who’s smoking hot about the Big Lie of the Affordable Care Act — you know, how President Barack Obama told everybody that if they liked their current health insurance policy they could keep it — do yourself a favor. Avoid the county fair midway.
Because if you go, you’re apt to encounter a quick-handed scoundrel running a shell game, and that boy will take your money. Doubtless Obama should have said almost everybody could keep their current plan, or that 95 percent could, but he apparently found that too, um, subtle for the campaign trail.
So now old Mitt “47 percent” Romney gets to call him a liar.
But while your attention’s fixed on the president’s “mendacity,” and “paternalism,” to quote one characteristically overwrought scribe, America’s beloved health insurance industry is demonstrating exactly why we needed reform all along. Certain companies are taking advantage of the political confusion to sell people in the “individual market” far more expensive plans than they need and blame “Obamacare.”
As usual, the nation’s esteemed political media have gone along for the ride. CBS News, rapidly morphing into Fox News-lite, presented the heartbreaking tale of one Diane Barrette, a 56-year-old Floridian who got a letter from her insurance company cancelling her $54 a month policy and offering a replacement for $591 a month — a lot of money to her.
CBS correspondent Jan Crawford, deemed smart enough to cover the U.S. Supreme Court, took Barrette’s story at face value. The idea that health insurance worth having could be purchased at a monthly cost of less than a steak dinner apparently failed to arouse her reporter’s curiosity.
Poor Barrette choked up telling CBS her story, leading to several appearances on Fox News itself.
Had CBS done elementary due diligence, they’d have learned why Ms. Barrette’s plan was so cheap. Reporters who did learned that among other shortcomings, it didn’t cover hospitalization. In reality, she had no health insurance at all. A serious accident or illness might have bankrupted her — precisely the kind of rip-off the Affordable Care Act makes illegal.
Also, Barrette was taking the insurance company’s word about the cost of a replacement policy. Writing for BillMoyers.com, Joshua Holland ran her numbers through Kaiser Permanente’s subsidy calculator. With assistance from Obamacare, she can have a real policy covering preventive care and hospitalization for an out-of-pocket cost of $97 monthly, or a more generous Silver-Level plan for $209.
Now she calls it “a blessing in disguise.”
In short, CBS News couldn’t have gotten the story more backward had they tried. For its part, NBC News featured Los Angeles real estate agent Deborah Cavallaro, whose similar experience led her to conclude that “there’s nothing affordable about the Affordable Care Act.”
However, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik found that Cavallaro had simply failed to consult Covered California, the state’s health plan exchange. When he did so, he quickly found that “better plans than she has now are available for her to purchase today, some of them for less money.”
No doubt some among the 3 to 5 percent of Americans whose individual health care policies have been cancelled are experiencing genuine sticker shock. However, nobody should take his insurance company’s word at face value without double-checking — a task admittedly made harder by healthcare.gov’s website meltdown.
See, when you read a story about a couple like Dean and Mary Lou Griffin of Chadd’s Ford, Penn., who told the Associated Press they’d expected to be able to keep the policy they bought three years ago, what reporters aren’t asking is where they’d gotten that idea.
From President Obama? Possibly.
More likely, however, from an insurance broker. See, all providers have known about new coverage standards ever since the Affordable Care Act passed in March 2010. Since then, some have clearly been “churning” the market, offering low-risk, healthy customers bargain policies they knew perfectly well would no longer pass muster come Jan. 1, 2014.
So now come the inevitable cancellation letters, and guess what? If they were lucky — and health-wise, the Griffins have been fortunate — here comes the bad news. “We’re buying insurance that we will never use and can’t possibly ever benefit from,” Dean Griffin complains. “We’re basically passing on a benefit to other people who are not otherwise able to buy basic insurance.”
Two thoughts: one, don’t get cocky, you never know.
Two, boo-hoo-hoo. You can afford it.
Meanwhile, Dylan Scott at talkingpointsmemo.com has documented companies sending “misleading letters to consumers, trying to lock them into ... more expensive health insurance plans rather than let them shop for insurance and tax credits on the Obamacare marketplaces.” Authorities in four states have disciplined Humana affiliates for exactly that.
It’s a classic bait and switch: luring customers with unsustainably low rates, and then blaming the White House for their chicanery.
That’s basically why we needed Obamacare to begin with.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”
You can email Lyons at email@example.com.