Lessons from the Obamacare 'Horror Stories'

At the root of every debunked, cancelled plan, Obamacare "horror story" is usually a person who isn't as informed as he or she would like to believe. Usually that person is a journalist.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

At the root of every debunked, cancelled plan, Obamacare "horror story" is usually a person who isn't as informed as he or she would like to believe. Usually that person is a journalist. Last week Maggie Mahar at HealthInsurance.org debunked yet another horror story, but she didn't blame the misguided former policy holders so much as the journalist who wrote the story. "It appeared that no one at the Star-Telegram even attempted to run a background check on the sources, or fact check their stories," Mahar wrote. "I couldn’t help but wonder: 'Why?'"

Obamacare horror story debunkings are actually just journalists calling out their peers. While the Obamacare "victim" — usually someone whose policy was cancelled — may be motivated by political leanings, an aversion to subsidies or just a lack of knowledge, it's not their job to give an accurate, thorough report on the issue from all sides. “The whole concept of the media checking the media is a new phenomenon,”  Bill Adair of PolitiFact told Poynter in November. There was once a time when journalists were a little more discreet with their critics of their peers, but now calling people out is the norm. And with Obamacare, which leads all kinds of reporters to pick and choose details, everyone (everyone) can learn something from the mistakes of others. Here are the key lessons from the last three months of bogus horror stories.

The Texas Horror Story:  In late November Yamil Berard at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote a piece on Obamacare's losers, people whose plans had been cancelled and who were having a hard time finding new plans. Whitney Johnson, a 26-year-old with multiple sclerosis, claimed she was being quoted $1,000 a month for her new premium. Robert Kecseg, 61, said his deductible was "double" the $10,000 he paid previously. Shari Lusk, 57, refused a subsidy.

Mahar found that Johnson, Kecseg and Lusk are all active Tea Party members. Meanwhile, it's extremely unlikely for a 26-year-old to pay $1,000 monthly premium, and anyone following the health care law would know that it limits deductibles for families at $12,700 and $6,350 for individuals. Unfortunately, Berard hadn't been following the Obamacare news. “I haven’t written about healthcare in a long time. We don’t have a healthcare writer," she told Mahar. "I cover about 15 other topics." 

The Lesson: Google your sources, or someone else will do it for you. Also, someone who thinks "We as a nation need to stand with the likes of Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Mike Lee who are committed to stopping ObamaCare,” as Johnson wrote in a letter to a pro-life organization, probably has a bias against Obamacare that should be mentioned.

The Los Angeles Horror Story: In October, Deborah Cavallaro of Los Angeles was quoted $478 a month by her insurance broker, nearly $200 more than her current plan. "Please explain to me," she told Maria Bartiromo on CNBC Wednesday, "how my plan is a 'substandard' plan when ... I'd be paying more for the exchange plans than I am currently paying by a wide margin?" She also said, "for the first time in my whole life, I will be without insurance." But, as Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times found, her current plan kind of sucks:

Her current plan, from Anthem Blue Cross, is a catastrophic coverage plan for which she pays $293 a month as an individual policyholder. It requires her to pay a deductible of $5,000 a year and limits her out-of-pocket costs to $8,500 a year. Her plan also limits her to two doctor visits a year, for which she shoulders a copay of $40 each. After that, she pays the whole cost of subsequent visits.

A silver plan with a $2,000 deductible would cost her $333 a month after the subsidy that the Times confirmed she was eligible for. Cavallaro, 60, also worried that her income would fluctuate, reducing her subsidy, and that her network would shrink.

See also: 56-year-old Dianne Barrette, whose $54 a month plan hardly covered anything.

Cavallaro on CNBC.

The Lesson: No one benefits when journalists don't dig deeper. CNBC failed to explain to Cavallaro why her plan was substandard — the super low cap on doctors visits, the high out-of-pocket costs (now capped at $6,350 for individuals) — so someone else had to. The network also didn't dig deeper to see if she had better options. Maybe telling people they're screwed gets more viewers.

And that goes both ways. As Cavallaro said later, she didn't research Covered CA plans, but she was reluctant to choose a cheaper plan with fewer doctor options (which Hiltzik glossed over) and was worried there were security risks associated with Covered CA (a somewhat valid concern Hiltzik didn't mention).

The Michigan Horror Story: Twenty-six year old Ashley "Obamacare raped my future" Dionne's story was told on several conservative media outlets, including  Campus ReformAmerican Thinker, the Drudge ReportRed Alert PoliticsThe Blaze, and Mediaite. She claimed her premium was skyrocketing from $75 a month to $319, which was more than she could afford working 32 hours a week at $8 an hour.

Mike Huckabee covered Dionne for Fox News.

This is probably the most debunkable story of all debunked stories. No one can say what Dionne can afford, but that $319 premium ignored the subsidies she was eligible for (based on the income she gave) and the fact that's she'll likely be eligible for Medicaid now that her state expanded the program.

The Lesson: Just because someone (Dionne) agrees with you (a conservative news outlet) doesn't mean she knows what she's talking about. It's not a journalist's job to determine what someone can afford, but her story didn't check out.

Greta Van Susteren covers Sanford for Fox News.

The Washington Horror Story: Jessica Sanford started out as an Obamacare success story. She wrote a letter to President Obama stating that the law allowed her to get insurance for herself and her son for $169 a month, after years of not having insurance. Obama read that letter to the entire country at a press conference.

But then! It turned out that the exchange in Sanford's home state, Washington, had screwed up her subsidy calculation. As in, she wasn't getting a subsidy and insurance suddenly became too expensive for her again.

But then again! As The Seattle Times reported, Sanford's son is eligible for Medicaid, and her own insurance would be much less than what she'd been quoted in the past. As Danny Westneat at the Times put it:

So here’s a family that was totally uninsured for 15 years because it had always cost at least $500 to $600 a month for skimpy policies to cover them both. And what they can get now is full coverage for $30 a month for the son and scantier coverage in the $250 to $300 a month range for the mom.

If $250-$300 a month is too much for Sanford that's her call. But her son could have cheap insurance and his $250-a-month ADHD medication would be free thanks to the Medicaid expansion.

The Lesson: Stop ignoring Medicaid. There are problems with the Medicaid expansion, but for a lot of people it's a solution. About 3.9 million people have enrolled in expanded Medicaid, while five million have been left out in states that haven't expanded, according to Businessweek. But that's often overlooked.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.