No doubt you have seen or read stories about innocent Americans who have become casualties of Obamacare. The law that was supposed to help middle-class families is now asking them to pay unreasonable premiums and sky-high deductibles. In many cases, they had perfectly good coverage that has been cancelled because it didn’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) “standards.”
Trouble is, some of these anecdotes just aren’t true. When an unbiased reporter begins to make some phone calls, they start to fall apart.
Nevertheless, these tales of Americans harmed by Obamacare are being promoted by various conservative groups–including the Republican National Committee. An internal RNC memo provides advice on how to collect stories of “victims” and feed them to the press.
Knowing this, when I read the horror stories, I can’t help but wonder: have the folks who are quoted checked prices on their Exchange? Do they know whether they are eligible for government subsidies? How many didn’t even try to find out because they just don’t like the ACA? Who are these people who step forward to identify themselves victims of the trainwreck called Obmacare? Where did they come from? How did the reporters who wrote the stories find them?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are journalists fact checking their tales? How many are just writing down whatever their sources tell them?
A Young Mother Suffering From MS Searches For Insurance
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a story that ran in the Fort Worth Star Telegram on November 26. The lead is compelling:
“Whitney Johnson, an Arlington 26-year-old with multiple sclerosis, can’t afford to go without health insurance. Her life depends on it.
She gave birth to her first child Sept. 2 after undergoing a series of rigorous steroid treatments, surgeries and a plasma exchange that saved her life. She pays $325 a month for an individual insurance plan – a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of her plasma protein replacement therapy, which runs $40,000 a pop. She undergoes treatment every five weeks.
But now, with the Affordable Care Act in full swing, Johnson’s insurance is under threat.. . .
Recently, the story explains, Johnson’s insurer sent her a letter saying that because her policy “does not comply with Obamacare” it will be cancelled Jan. 1, 2014. Initially she hoped that she might shift to her husband’s employer-based health plan For $325 a month, it covers him and their son. But it turns out that if Whitney were added the policy, their premium would triple.
Meanwhile, she “has been unable to access the federal health exchange website” the newspaper reports, “which has been hampered by technical problems.”
In a video talking about her experience, Johnson claims that when she began “trying to shop around ‘ outside the Exchange, “the rates went from $1,000 to $1,800 a month for not even close to the coverage that my previous insurance had offered me.”
This is when I knew that there was something very wrong with Johnson’s story.
$1000 a Month To Insure a 26-Year- Old ???
Anyone who knows anything about Obamacare would realize that under the ACA, no 26-year-old would be asked to pay $12,000 a year – even if she had MS. Obamacare does not let insurers charge 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.
And Johnson is just 26. In most exchanges, 20-somethings pay far less than older Americans. I was certain that that she could get a much better deal. It didn’t take me long to find one.
Using HealthCare.gov, I plugged in Johnson’s age, and the county where she lives. Since she suffers from MS, I realized that she would want a Gold plan rather than a less expensive Bronze or Silver plan. Within ten minutes, I found ten Gold plans with premiums ranging from $260 to $379 a month – including a Blue Choice Gold PPO for $332.
That was just $7 more than Johnson had been paying for the plan that has been cancelled. The deductible is low ($1,500) and limits her annual total out-of-pocket spending to $3,500.
Her co-pay when visiting a specialist would be $60. Co-pays for medications would range from $35 to $150 for a “specialty prescription.” (These co-pays are not “after the deductible. She would owe just $60 when seeing a specialist, even though she had not yet paid down the deductible.)
No Fact Checking; Boehner “Tweets” the Story
I was puzzled: Why had no one at the Star-Telegram checked HealthCare.gov? When the November 26 article was published, the website was working smoothly. (As of November 30, over 17,000 Texans had enrolled in the marketplace, more than in any other state except California, New York, Florida and Washington.)
Without fact checking, the paper published the article, and Johnson’s tale went viral, turning up everywhere from Sean Hannity’s show, to House speaker John Boehener’s website. Boehner also tweeted the story. Anyone who read it would be led to believe that under Obamacare, a 20-Something might have to fork over $1,000 a month for coverage.
If you wanted to discourage young Americans from enrolling, this story would do the trick.
Who Is Whitney Johnson?
When a reporter isn’t familiar with a source, he normally does a background check to make sure the source doesn’t have an ax to grind.
When I Googled Whitney Johnson, a letter that she had written to a pro-life organization called Concerned Women for America–asking for help – popped up. The letter immediately explained why she might be willing, even eager, to believe that Obamacare would triple her premiums:
“I am one of many who have been lied to over and over again by our president,” Johnson wrote. “I am one of many other fellow countrymen who have preexisting conditions …”
“Before you tune me out and accuse me of being a radical conservative, understand that I’m neither a democrat nor republican; I’m an American. An American that wants to see our country restored to its original intent. A country for the people, by the people. A country that once again can stand up and say, ‘In God we trust!’ …”
“We as a nation need to stand with the likes of Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Mike Lee who are committed to stopping ObamaCare.”
The letter continues in this vein for some eight paragraphs. She ends by quoting Norman Thomas:
“The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of ‘liberalism’ they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”.
Whitney Johnson may not be a Republican or a Democrat, but her letter makes it clear that she is far from apolitical. She was channeling Ronald Reagan. With a little more Googling, I found her Facebook page, which revealed that she is a member of the Parker County Tea Party Facebook Group and that she has attended its meetings. (Her mother, Dawn King, was one of two founding members when the Parker County Tea Party when it was formed in 2009.)
At that point, I wondered: Who are the other three people profiled in this article?
When I began Googling them, I quickly discovered them two of the three are Tea Party activists. A coincidence? .
I then started trying to track down their phone numbers.
To find out more about the three other sources, see this post that I recently published on the Health Insurance Resource Center, and scroll down to “Determined to Boycott Obamacare”
As I note at the end of that post, ultimately I spoke to two of the victims–including Johnson, as well as two editors at the StarTelegram, and the reporter who actually wrote the story.
In the next post in this series, I will reveal what they told me. It may well surprise you.
In a third final post I’ll describe what other reporters have discovered when they begin to deconstruct both newspaper articles and television shows that profile the casualties of Obamacare. The Star-Telegram is far from unique.
In the meantime, you can comment on the this post here or come back to HealthBeat to comment.