Why Are So Many Americans Confused About Obamacare? How a Video Produced by CBS’ Washington Bureau Misled Millions –Part 1

For nearly four years, poll after poll has shown that the majority of Americans remain flummoxed by Obamacare.  Many are confused; some are afraid. They don’t know what the Affordable Care Act (ACA) says, and they don’t know how it will affect their lives

From the beginning, many in the media have blamed the White House.

Early in 2011, when a CBS poll showed that only 56% of Americans said the bill’s impact had not been explained well—or even “somewhat well”– CBS senior producer Ward Sloane summed up the prevailing view: “To me, that is a Monumental Failure by the Obama Administration. . . . [my emphasis]  And it opens up a big hole for the Republicans which they have driven through with, you know, several tanks.

Because Democrats had botched explaining the legislation, Sloane argued, Republicans “can say whatever they want about the healthcare bill … whether it’s true or not, and  . . . it will resonate . . .  People are afraid. People are afraid of things that they don’t understand and they don’t know. . . The Republicans are playing to this fear and they’re doing a masterful job.”

Sloane slid over the role that reporters might play in helping the public understand an enormous—and enormously important– piece of legislation.  If Republicans were spreading disinformation, shouldn’t news organizations like CBS try to separate fact from fiction?

Network and cable news shows are in our living rooms every evening. President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are not. In speeches and in press conferences Obama and Sebelius can address a handful of questions, but they cannot explain the hundreds of interlocking details that will benefit millions of Americans. The public needs an independent, informed press that will dig into the major provisions of Obamacare and explain them, not once, but again and again.

There was just one problem: As Sloane suggested, the Republicans were doing “a masterful job” of misleading the public. What he didn’t take into account is that journalists are part of “the public.”

                      The Networks Spread Fear and Confusion

Fast forward two years to the fall of 2013.

Little has changed; most Americans still don’t understand the Affordable Care Act, and many are convinced that they have been betrayed by the president they elected.

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Did the Administration Conceal the Fact That Millions Would Have to Replace Their Insurance With A New Policy?

At the end of October NBC’s Lisa Myers and Hannah Rappleye broke the story: “millions of Americans are getting or are about to get cancellation letters for their health insurance under Obamacare, say experts, and the Obama administration has known that for at least three years. Four sources deeply involved in the Affordable Care Act tell NBC News that 50 to 75 percent of the 14 million consumers who buy their insurance individually can expect to receive a ‘cancellation’” letter or the equivalent over the next year because their existing policies don’t meet the standards mandated by the new health care law. One expert predicts that number could reach as high as 80 percent. And all say that many of those forced to buy pricier new policies will experience ‘sticker shock.’

“Buried in Obamacare regulations from July 2010,” Myers and Rappleye reported, “is an estimate that because of normal turnover in the individual insurance market, “40 to 67 percent” of customers will not be able to keep their policy. That means the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them.”

In fact, NBC’s investigative team did not t need four unnamed sources “deeply involvthe ACA” to tip them off that millions of customers would be receiving these notices.

Three years earlier Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had called a press conference to announce that under the ACA, 43 million Americans working for small companies” would be moving to new plans.   Labor Secretary Hilda Solis joined her to explain that the new plans would give workers “all of the protections of Obamacare.” 

In a press release HHS spelled out the numbers: “roughly 42 million people insured through small businesses will likely transition from their current plan to one with the new Affordable Care Act protections over the next few years,” along with “17 million who are covered in the individual health insurance market.”  .

What about President Obama’s promise that “If you like your plan you can keep it”?  As I explain it the post above, when he first made this pledge, he was addressing “the majority” of insured Americans who worked for a large companies where they received generous benefits. These were the folks who “liked their plans,” and in a debate with Senator McCain, he was reassuring them that health reform would not mean dismantling employer-based insurance and moving to a single-payer system. But over time, candidate Obama made the mistake of letting his pledge turn into a sound bite. At that point, it became easy for his opponents rip that line out of its original context, and brand him a liar.

In 2013, when reporters claimed that people who received the “cancellation letters” were blind-sided, they ignored the fact people in the individual market often lost their policies. As HHS observed in its 2010 press release: “roughly 40% to two-thirds of people in the individual market normally change plans within a year,”  in part because carriers in that market routinely discontinued  policies.  Inevitably, the replacements they offered costs more and/or covered less. As a result,  Americans who purchased their own insurance were accustomed to scrambling, year after year, to find new coverage.  In the fall of 2013, neither they, nor reporters who knew anything about the individual market, should have been shocked when so many policy-holders discovered that they would not be able to renew their plans..

Was the News “Buried” In Obscure Obamacare Regulations?

Hardly. The New York Times covered the press conference in its A1 section, noting that, “the rules appear to fall short of the sweeping commitments President Obama made while trying to reassure the public” that they “could keep their current coverage if they like it.”  But, as the Times reported, the administration explained that  “this was just one goal of the legislation.” Another goal was to make sure, as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis put it when responding to a question “that insurers don’t take advantage of their customers.” 

Originally, the Affordable Care Act had stipulated that if an insurer sold a plan before March 2010, when the ACA passed, the carrier could continue to renew that plan—even if it didn’t meet the ACA’s standards. But reformers did not want to give carriers carte blanche. As Sebelius explained at the press conference: If, after 2010, insurers (or employers) made dramatic changes to a plan, hiking deductibles or reducing benefits (“for instance, deciding to stop covering  treatments for say, HIV/AIDS or cystic fibrosis,”)  it would be considered a new plan.  At that point, the insurer would no longer be able to renew the policy and would have offer a replacement that met the ACA’s requirements for consumer protection.

Back in June 2010 the New York Times was not the only major media outlet that publicizing the rules: Fox News issued a “Special Report,” which claimed that “up to 80 percent of small businesses and 64 percent of large businesses may have to give up the plans they had today within three years,” The Report even included a video of Sebelius making the announcement.

Yet in October of 2013 Fox would claim that the press conference never happened.  On Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy charged that the administration hid the facts.  “Back in 2010, they knew millions would lose [their coverage], and they didn’t say a word!”

Okay, I understand that most folks at Fox don’t start their day by skimming the New York Times. But don’t they watch Fox News?

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