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OP-ED | Shameful Coverage Of Obamacare’s Real Impacts

by Wendell Potter | Jun 6, 2014 3:05am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Corporate Watch, Health Care, Media Matters, Opinion, Health Care Opinion, Reprinted with permission from the Center for Public Integrity

Journalism That Focuses On Political Sniping Does Public A Disservice

If you read my column last week about a Senate hearing that showed how Obamacare has affected Americans, you might have wondered if I was in the same room with reporters who presumably covered the event.

The disparity goes a long way toward explaining why so many of us are clueless about the actual impact the law is having on our lives.

The title of the May 21 Senate Commerce Committee hearing: “Delivering Better Health Care Value to Consumers: The First Three Years of the Medical Loss Ratio.” I was one of four witnesses talking about the part of the law that requires health insurers to issue rebates to policyholders if they spend more than 20 percent of premiums on non-medical expenses, including profits — the so-called Medical Loss Ratio.

commerce.senate.gov Prior to the passage of the law, insurance company executives — who consider what they spend on medical care to be a loss — were in many cases devoting up to half of premiums they collected to pay for advertising and other administrative functions and to reward executives and shareholders.

As I wrote last week, consumers have saved at least $3 billion since the provision of the law that mandates insurers must spend at least 80 percent of our premiums on medical care went into effect in 2011.

The hearing wasn’t just about numbers, however. Katherine Fernandez, a small business owner from Houston, testified about how the MLR provision and other aspects of the law have enabled her family to pay less for far more comprehensive coverage than was possible in the past.

She told the committee that because both her husband and son had pre-existing conditions, the only policies available to them pre-Obamacare would not cover any medical care pertaining to those maladies. And even then the policies had both high premiums and high deductibles. She said that during the 14 years prior to the law’s passage, her family paid more than $100,000 in premiums for what she described as bare-bones coverage. And the premiums went up sharply every year — 165 percent between 2000 and 2003 alone.

She said she was elated when the Affordable Care Act passed. “No more pre-existing condition clauses … and insurance companies had to refund some of what we paid if they didn’t spend enough. What reasonable ideas.”

If you read the accounts of the hearing in The Washington Post, USA Today, Politico or CBS News — the only news outlets I could find that provided any coverage — you would not have read anything about the $3 billion consumers have saved as a result of the MLR provision or how the law has benefited the Fernandez family.

The focus of all those stories was a brief exchange toward the end of the hearing between Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin about whether the color of President Obama’s skin might explain why some people are opposed to the law.

Rockefeller suggested race might be a factor, which provoked a spirited denial from Johnson. Politico’s only hint about the hearing’s actual subject was this: “His (Rockefeller’s) critiques of the GOP again came in a sparsely attended committee hearing, this time during an analysis of health-care spending.”

The only one of these pieces that even mentioned “medical loss ratio” was the CBS story, and it, too, was primarily about the exchange between Rockefeller and Johnson. In the USA Today article, which apparently was based on a National Journal transcript, the only hint of a hearing was in the very last sentence:  “Rockefeller then veered into another topic before adjourning the hearing.”

That other topic, of course, was the medical loss ratio.

The Washington Post likewise found medical loss ratio of no interest. Its story, too, was about the back-and-forth between Rockefeller and Johnson during what the reporter dismissed as “an otherwise sleepy committee hearing.”

Granted, it is challenging to substantively cover the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. health care system is dizzyingly complex, and so is the law. It’s far easier to write about constant political sparring than to take the time to educate readers about what’s actually in the law and how it affects people. It’s not a heavy lift to review a transcript and write the kind of “he said, she said” — in this case the “he said, he said” — coverage that passes for journalism.

There are a lot of reasons why Americans don’t know how the law affects them or why they believe things about Obamcare that aren’t true. The Democrats have done a lousy job of explaining it. And more than $400 million has been spent by opponents attacking it — 15 times as much as has been spent by supporters. But one of the biggest reasons is the failure of many in the media to provide anything other than the most superficial coverage. As a former reporter who used to cover hearings on the Hill, I consider that shameful.

Former CIGNA executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter is writing about the health care industry and the ongoing battle for health reform for the Center for Public Integrity.

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(10) Comments

posted by: CT Jim | June 6, 2014  8:56am

Great Op-Ed from a guy that obviously knows that the right is totally lying about every aspect of ACA they can. Instead of making it better the right would rather blow it up so they can watch the carnage. Talk about sick people. Well Mr. Potter keep up the good fight I’m sure there will be about 20 posts after mine with words like “socialist” “communist” and any other right wing talking point that Frank Luntz came up with in his right wing focus groups.

posted by: Bulldog1 | June 6, 2014  10:18am

No “demon socialist” ranting here Jim.  Just a question:  How do the so called “socialist nations” (France, Germany, Sweden, Norway to name a few) happen to cover ALL of their citizens at half the cost of the US who leaves 50 million out in the cold and provides crap insurance to millions more.  With really good health outcomes and longer life expectancy than the US.

I guess our mess is what happens when the “genius” of the market allows CEO’s and investors to reap billions off something like healthcare at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

And I suspect Luntz gets paid very well to wordsmith for the billionaire takers.

posted by: Bluecoat | June 6, 2014  10:45am

Well sure, but how come I can’t find anything about the fiscal diagnosis of the whole bill?
From Paul Krawzak at Roll Call this week:
“For Democratic lawmakers who were hesitant to sign onto the sweeping 2010 health care law, one of the most powerful selling points was that the Affordable Care Act would actually reduce the federal budget deficit, despite the additional costs of extending health insurance coverage to the uninsured.

Four years after enactment of what is widely viewed as President Barack Obama’s key legislative achievement, however, it’s unclear whether the health care law is still on track to reduce the deficit or whether it may actually end up adding to the federal debt. In fact, the answer to that question has become something of a mystery.”

So we have here an article praising the 3 billion saved on one end, but no mention of the billions more that will be lost.

Who cares, what difference, at this point does it make?
More from the article:
“In its latest report on the law, the Congressional Budget Office said it is no longer possible to assess the overall fiscal impact of the law. That conclusion came as a surprise to some fiscal experts in Washington and is drawing concern. And without a clear picture of the law’s overall financing, it could make it politically easier to continue delaying pieces of it, including revenue raisers, because any resulting cost increases might be hidden.”

posted by: Bluecoat | June 6, 2014  3:11pm

Can someone tell me the official enrollment numbers?
How about telling us how many enrollees paid their premiums?
It was just announced that the wizards in Washington have to revamp Healthcare.gov, how much is that going to cost?

posted by: Bluecoat | June 6, 2014  3:16pm

I wonder who helped write the language into the ACA Act to “bailout” the Insurance Companies if they lose money?
Can we get a name? Or was it a ghost writer?
Was it an elected official or an un-elected assistant?
Can you find out for us Mr. Wendell Potter?
What difference, at this point, does it matter.

posted by: Bluecoat | June 6, 2014  3:20pm

Anyway, while we are all watching the Bergdahl squirrel over there, no one seemed to notice this NY Times Story:
“Charges for some of the most common inpatient procedures surged at hospitals across the country in 2012 from a year earlier, some at more than four times the national rate of inflation, according to data released by Medicare officials on Monday.”
I thought these things weren’t going to happen??????

<http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/business/Medicare-Hospital-Billing-Data-Is-Released.html?_r=0>

posted by: GBear423 | June 6, 2014  5:33pm

GBear423

Bluecoat you ask some good questions.  What I have failed to convey in the past is these European models began with a culture already accustomed to social aspects of government; Our progressive brethren do not understand how much that social idea rubs against the grain of many of us on the Right.
***NOBODY*** denies the Insurance-Medical partnership is an unholy union founded of greed and corruption. Politicians just paved the way for it to go to the next level, Incorporate it.
The ACA, imho, does little to reduce the costs (taxes and fees that will just get thrown back at the customer), and even hedges the Corporations (as you pointed out). Mr Potter is just an ad man for another department of the Insurance biz. ACA injects new Cash (mandated customers) into the same corrupt system…
Single Payer is the ultimate goal, it was originally written in, and taken out knowing that the system will collapse under the weight of the ACA, and Single Payer will be the only option. Saw this before Obama put pen to paper.

posted by: Dave391973 | June 6, 2014  7:45pm

I have an issue with “CT Jim”. You said, “the right is totally lying about every aspect of the ACA they can” Well were they lying when they warned us about premiums going up and plans getting cancelled? Because mine got cancelled, and now the same plan I had before is $350.00 more a month. PERIOD! And that is a real period, not a Barack Obama period.

posted by: GBear423 | June 7, 2014  5:14am

GBear423

This is just typical:
Fox CT reports: “A backpack found on Trumbull Street in Hartford appears to have contained personal information from accounts associated with Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange.”

Someone had handwritten the personal info of about 400 accounts and that is just the backpack they left on a street. What about the other “backpacks” of info NOT left on a street????

posted by: Joebigjoe | June 7, 2014  3:58pm

Once again I wish Wendell wouldnt hit and run with his pieces. I would love to see his replies because without it his writing comes across more as propaganda than anything.

It’s all one sided to the point where I may just stop reading them. There are other article contributors to this site that tend to do that “at times” but they are right there in the fray afterwards, so I may disagree with them but I respect them. Sometimes their followups in the comments may make me agree with them on some points at times but I’ll deny ever saying that.