We've spent the last couple of weeks waiting for the next installment in a promised series of Denver Post stories about the effects of the Affordable Care Act in Colorado by grant-funded freelance write Art Kane. Kane's last story, as we and others explored in detail, was a disaster of factual inaccuracies and misleading anecdotes that severely hurt both Kane's credibility and that of the Denver Post. That story was subject to several rounds of corrections, which unfortunately couldn't help the front-page original subscribers saw in the print version. The fact that this story made it onto the Post's front page without elementary fact-checking remains a serious point of concern–which is why we were waiting for the next one.
Today, we finally have the next installment in Kane's Obamacare series–and it's little better than the last one. It begins, as with the story about the fictitious "$10,000 Obamacare deductible," with a vague anecdote:
As U.S. Sen. Mark Udall's office and the Colorado Division of Insurance clashed last fall over health policy cancellations and early renewals, Julie Dagnillo experienced the turmoil of health insurance changes firsthand.
Anthem canceled the small-group policy at her work because it did not meet the minimum requirements of the Affordable Care Act. She said she earns too much to qualify for a subsidy on the state health insurance exchange. Her broker, who is certified with the exchange, told her she probably will pay at least $100 more a month for an individual plan purchased on the exchange, but that plan would have less coverage.
The insurer also sent her an early renewal for a policy she bought for her 23-year-old daughter, Lucy. The ACA allows children to stay on their parents' policies until 26, but the family decided the individual policy made more sense for Lucy…
"I'm completely outraged," said Dagnillo, a Pueblo resident. "We're the ones suffering the brunt for the entire nation. They're going to put us into poverty." [Pols emphasis]
Setting aside the fact that, as the saying goes, "the multiple of anecdote is not data," this newest anecdote on the front page of the Denver Post invites serious questions. First of all, the subsidies that many Americans qualify for to offset premium costs apply up to 400% of the poverty line–not to mention the subsidies that small businesses like the one Julie Dagnillo works for may qualify for as well. We have no idea why it would "make more sense" to not keep Dagnillo's daughter on her parents' plan until age 26 as the Affordable Care Act now allows, but it's well known that the plans individual insurers are offering consumers in these so-called "cancellation notices" are often much more costly than what's available on the exchange. And of course, unless Dagnillo's daughter has an atypically high income for a 23-year-old, she'll get a subsidy too.
Dagnillo fears the change will have her cutting out massages and stylist appointments and having to shop for groceries at discount retailers.
"I'm not going to have any disposable cash anymore," she said. "It will all go to health insurance." [Pols emphasis]
That of course sounds horrible–but the problem is, Kane doesn't include any hard numbers we can check against to verify what Ms. Dagnillo is asserting. Nowhere does this story say what she was paying previously, or what she would pay through the exchange–Kane just relies on Dagnillo's unverified claims, made via an unnamed broker who says she'll "probably" pay $100 more per month.
So what can we find out about Julie Dagnillo?
We know from this story that she believes Obamacare will drive her "into poverty," "suffering the brunt for the entire nation." But buried in Kane's story, which meanders into subjects like the debunked "conflict" between Sen. Mark Udall's office and the Division of Insurance over cancellations without reporting that story's resolution, are numbers that seem to indicate a much smaller rate of increase for premiums now than before Obamacare:
Before ACA, the five- year average annual policy increase was 12.1 percent for individual and 11.5 percent for small-group policies, according to the division.
Division records show Anthem's small-group policies saw a 5 percent increase, while Kaiser Permanente's was 3 percent for the temporary early renewals. Anthem had a 4.7 percent increase for individual early renewals, but the division did not have that information for Kaiser, Plymell said.
A major issue identified with the recent spate of factually-challenged "Obamacare horror stories" is that many "victims" just assume they won't qualify for assistance, assume horror stories they see in ads and news media also apply to them, and don't bother to actually check to find out what their rates would be. For a reporter, taking these statements from nonexperts without verifying their story is just plain irresponsible journalism. Also, it appears that most of this story was written before last week's two-year extension of existing policies announced by the Obama administration, which appears to undercut the entire premise. Kane acknowledges this essentially as a side note, which is ridiculous. Perhaps not unexpected for a freelance story that Kane knows won't be fact-checked anyway, but most reporters, when confronted with a new development that invalidates the story you're writing, start over.
And perhaps the most important thing you need to know: Julie Dagnillo is a registered Republican who voted in last year's successful recall of Sen. Angela Giron in Pueblo. After Kane's last story and the many dubious horror stories being promoted by right-wing group Americans for Prosperity, this was our first question about Ms. Dagnillo, and our suspicions were quickly confirmed. Don't tell us that Dagnillo's party affiliation, a public record, isn't a fair point. The siloed distribution of information, and misinformation, about the Affordable Care Act means there's a huge gap in how individuals respond to the ACA based on party affiliation. Without hard numbers that validate the claims Dagnillo is making, especially where those claims don't reconcile with the data showing that the rate of growth in health care costs is slowing–and that large numbers of individual policyholders are saving money with subsidized premiums–we can't place any credibility in her story at all.
And there is an undeniable glaring motive for this woman either not knowing the facts, or not wanting to. In short, what we have here is another shoddy, anecdotal horror story Obamacare on the front page of the Denver Post–and without any counterbalancing story about the many consumers benefiting from the new law. Instead of reporting on the many thousands of success stories of the last few months, we get more horror stories and anecdotes that fall apart under scrutiny. Kane's last story at least had numbers in it, which were rapidly debunked. Simply omitting numbers and relying on the anecdotes is not an improvement.
As we said last time, the Post's readers deserve better than this. There are only a few weeks left for consumers to take advantage of open enrollment in the exchange, and bad reporting like this is doing both Obamacare and the public a material disservice. It's a travesty that this kind of venal sloppiness is the best our local media can do on such an important issue.