During one of several GOP responses to President Obama’s State of the Union Address this week, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) told the story of a woman named ‘Bette,’ who according to Rodgers, had written her a letter stating that she had “hoped the president’s healthcare law would save her money – but found out instead that her premiums were going up nearly $700 a month.” The lesson, according to Rodgers: “This law is not working.”
After hearing the story of ‘Bette in Spokane,’ her hometown newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, tracked her down to find out more details about Bette’s story. Not surprisingly, once all of the facts came out, Rodgers’ account of this supposed ‘Obamacare horror story’ turned out to be nothing more than another misleading and erroneous scare tactic. Why is this so unsurprising? Because the GOP has been doing the same thing for months now, all in an attempt to create fear, anxiety, confusion, and anger over the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Looking Back: The Right-Wing’s ‘Scary Movie Strategy’
Before getting into the details of the GOP’s latest fib, let’s recount a few other notable examples from the Republican’s ACA misinformation campaign.
Back in October, Fox News’ Sean Hannity brought on three quests to recount their own Obamacare “horror stories.” As Hannity interviewed each of them, they described their experiences with canceled policies, premium hikes, restrictions on the freedom to see a doctor of their choice, and financial burdens upon their small businesses and so on. After watching the broadcast, Salon reporter Eric Stern, who gained an insider’s perspective on health care reform while serving as senior counsel to former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, thought these stories sounded a bit fishy.
According to Stern, “none of it smelled right to me. Nothing these folks were saying jibed with the basic facts of the Affordable Care Act as I understand them. I understand them fairly well; I have worked as a senior adviser to a governor and helped him deal with the new federal rules.”
So he tracked down all three of Hannity’s guests. To make a long story short, Stern uncovered facts that undermined every single claim made on Hannity’s show. One of the guests, Paul Cox from Leicester, N.C., had bemoaned to Hannity that because of the ACA’s requirement for employers to provide health insurance to their workers, he and his wife were being forced to make cutbacks to the workforce at the construction company they own. However, when Stern tracked him down, the facts Mr. Cox revealed during their conversation – which were, of course, not mentioned on Hannity’s show – completely discredited Fox News’ version of the story. As Stern wrote in his article for Salon:
Obamacare has no effect on businesses with 49 employees or less. But in our brief conversation on the phone, Paul revealed that he has only four employees. Why the cutback on his workforce? “Well,” he said, “I haven’t been forced to do so, it’s just that I’ve chosen to do so. I have to deal with increased costs.” What costs? And how, I asked him, is any of it due to Obamacare? There was a long pause, after which he said he’d call me back. He never did.
There is only one Obamacare requirement that applies to a company of this size: workers must be notified of the existence of the “healthcare.gov” website, the insurance exchange. That’s all.
Stern’s interviews with Hannity’s other two guests revealed more of the same. Allison Denijs, who told Hannity that she and her family would be paying more than $20,000 a year for health insurance under the ACA, had never actually even visited the ACA’s insurance marketplace to see how much a plan would cost. When Stern checked out Denijs’ options, he discovered that Denijs was eligible to purchase insurance for her entire family for just $7,600 a year – over $12,000 less than the estimate given on Hannity’s show, and 60% less than what she and her family were paying in the pre-Obamacare market. In his third interview, Stern found out that Hannity guest Robbie Robison and his wife Tina, who told Hannity they were facing a rate increase of 50-75% under the ACA, had not even looked at prices for plans on the ACA’s marketplace. Stern’s investigation revealed that, like Denijs, Robbie and Tina were eligible for a plan that would cost a maximum of $3,700 a year — 63% less than their current bill.
In another debunked ‘Obamacare horror story,’ Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times followed up on a CNBC report in which Deborah Cavallaro, a real estate agent from the LA area, was interviewed about losing her health plan. As Hiltzik uncovered, CNBC’s account of Cavallaro’s experience wasn’t true, and no one at CNBC had taken the time to look into it before broadcasting her story on national television. Like the guests on Fox News, Cavallaro lamented the cost of a new plan under the ACA, saying that she was quoted $478 a month, significantly more than she was currently paying for what she described as a better plan. After a short phone conversation, Hiltzik found out that Cavallaro had not actually looked into her options for coverage on the ACA marketplace, instead relying on an outside insurance broker to do the work – and apparently, her insurance broker didn’t do his homework, either. Hiltzik quickly identified a cheaper, more comprehensive “silver” plan offered by California’s state health plan exchange under the ACA. The cost was $333/month and the plan was significantly better than her current coverage. The deductible for her new plan would be just $2,000, a whopping $3,000 less than her current deductible of $5,000. The maximum out-of-pocket cost is $6,350, down from $8,500. And all doctor visits will now be covered, whereas her old plan only covered a measly two visits per year. All of this for just $40 dollars more than her old premium. And, if she chose to, Cavallaro could have opted for the “bronze” plan, an even cheaper plan for just $194/month, which is $100 less per month than her current premium but still offers better coverage.
Then there was the onslaught of specious interviews and fallacious stories claiming that millions of Americans had been ‘kicked off’ their insurance plans and left with no other option but to pay more money for supposedly inferior coverage under the ACA. Even the Wall Street Journal joined the misinformation campaign, publishing one article so misleading that the LA Times called it journalistic “malpractice.” While we now know that only 0.6% of the population faced the prospect of losing their insurance plan and paying more for a new, better policy, right-wing media – and even some credible mainstream media outlets like CBS, CNN, NBC, and USA Today – managed to create an outrageously overblown narrative by extrapolating information from isolated, anecdotal accounts like those mentioned above. Not to mention that the premise of these stories (that the ACA forced insurance companies to cancel these policies, and that the President lied about it) was completely flawed to begin with. Since I have already covered this issue with a series of in-depth of articles, I won’t go into all of it here – but if you are interested in reading more about the deeply flawed media coverage of these issues, you can check out my previous articles here and here and here and here, and for more on the many ACA myths propagated by the GOP and right-wing media, check out these articles here and here and here and here and here.
Another Day, Another Lie
In the most recent bogus Obamacare story, facts once again proved to be the GOP’s kryptonite. Rep. Rodgers’ depiction of Bette’s situation immediately generated speculation among bloggers, journalists, and insurance industry experts like Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, who couldn’t understand how a state resident “would have no choice but to pay $700 per month more for a policy that meets the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements.” So reporter David Wasson of the Spokesman Review decided to investigate a little further.
According to the Spokesman Review, the woman identified as only as ‘Bette’ in Rodgers’ televised address is 58-year-old Bette Grenier from the Chattaroy area of Spokane County, Washington. In an interview with Wasson, Grenier said she had no idea that Rep. Rodgers was planning to use her story as part of the Republican attack on health care reform. And the “nearly $700 per month” increase in her premium that Rodgers’ cited in the GOP response to the State of the Union? As it turns out, this estimate was based on one of the priciest options pitched by Asuris Northwest to Grenier and her husband. She had never even gone of the state’s online portal to look at prices for plans in the ACA’s insurance marketplace. In fact, she flatly refused to do so:
“I wouldn’t go on that Obama website at all,” said Grenier.
After receiving notice from her insurer (Asuris Northwest) that her $522/month policy would no longer be offered, Grenier complained to Rep. Rodgers and sent a copy of the letter to Rep. Rodgers office, which included the rate quotes for the insurance company’s suggested replacement policies. When asked what steps were taken to verify the figures Rep. Rodgers cited as being offered on the ACA’s insurance marketplace, Rodgers’ office had no explanation.
In other words, when Rep. Rodgers claimed that ‘Bette from Spokane’ had been kicked off her insurance plan and now had no other option than to pay for a plan that would cost an additional $700/month, she forgot to mention the very important fact that ‘Bette from Spokane’ had never even looked at other options – even though she had them. Grenier even acknowledged in her interview with the Spokesman Review that she could “probably shave at least another $100 dollars a month” off of her monthly premium by purchasing a plan from the state’s insurance marketplace.
Further, Rodgers’ claim that Bette’s situation is in any way a product of problems with the ACA could not be further from the truth. In fact, this is just the type of problem that the GOP has spent the last several years trying to create through their use of divisive scare tactics. Rodgers had a copy of the letter Grenier received from her insurance company, so she knew that Grenier had not yet explored the prices on her state’s exchange. But instead of trying to help her constituent navigate the law, she exploited her story and tried to use it to gain political points. When the Daily Kos looked into Bette’s story and entered her information into Washington’s state-based insurance marketplace, they found that Bette and her husband would be eligible for the ACA’s insurance subsidies to help pay for the cost of insurance – and it’s possible, depending on their exact income, that the Grenier’s would be eligible for insurance at no cost at all.
But instead of even looking at their options for insurance plans under the ACA, Grenier and her husband “have decided to go without coverage.”
In her attempt to attack the health care law, Rodgers’ response to the State of the Union speech ended up saying more about the sad plight of today’s Republican Party and their Obamacare “train wreck” narrative than it did about the ACA. If the GOP can’t come up with a ‘horror story’ that stands up to even the most basic scrutiny, you would think they would switch tactics.
Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times put it best:
[Bette Grenier’s] plight has nothing to do with Obamacare. It’s a product of her own apparently flawed decision to refuse even to look into the benefits the healthcare law might provide. And it’s another sign of how threadbare the GOP criticism of the Affordable Care Act has become. If this is the best they can conjure up for what might be one of the best-watched TV appearances a back-bench Republican congresswoman gets to deliver, shouldn’t they give up already?
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