How a Wildly Misleading Obamacare Horror Story is Born
by Joshua Holland | November 1, 2013 - 10:22amFar too many breathless news stories about insurance plans being “canceled” or people facing “sticker shock” fail to convey even the most basic context: this is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the individual insurance market, which covers between 5 to 6 percent of the population.
Some of those people – mostly younger, healthier people who, because they’re in the top third of the income distribution aren’t eligible for subsidies – will have to pay higher premiums for more comprehensive coverage, even if they don’t want to. This can cause real economic hardship, and that’s a legitimate issue.
But it’s still an issue that will affect only a small slice of the population. Jonathan Gruber, a health care expert at MIT, estimates that around half of those six percent won’t experience any real change. “They have to buy new plans, but they will be pretty similar to what they had before,” he told Ryan Lizza. “It will essentially be relabeling.”
Gruber adds that most of those plans being canceled run afoul of a provision of the law banning any policy that requires people to pay more than $6,000 per year in health care expenses – plans that may lead to medical bankruptcies, the number one type of bankruptcy in the US.
That leaves about three percent of Americans who may face that tough situation where they have to pay more for coverage they may not want.
That’s not the impression you’d get from most media sources, and certainly not from the law’s ideological foes. Avik Roy, for example – a conservative columnist for Forbes who has not exactly distinguished himself for his honesty in the debates over Obamacare – has a piece today that’s remarkable both for its mendacity and its alarmism.
Roy’s headline is, “Obama Officials in 2010: 93 Million Americans Will be Unable to Keep Their Health Plans Under Obamacare.” And his claim rests on a very simple bait-and-switch…
“The [administration's] mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small employer plans and 45 percent of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013,” wrote the administration on page 34,552 of the Register. All in all, more than half of employer-sponsored plans will lose their “grandfather status” and get canceled.Note that “…and get canceled” are Roy’s words, not those of the Obama administration in 2010. And those words are completely misleading – falsely suggesting that tens of millions of people will feel a real impact like that three percent discussed above.
That an insurance plan is “grandfathered” only means that it has been in existence, with minimal changes in benefits or cost-sharing, since before the law was enacted. Roy would have his readers believe that all these plans will be “canceled,” but most group plans lose their grandfathered status by coming into compliance or through other changes that are routine in our insurance system and always have been. All grandfathered plans will lose their status over time, meaning for the most part that, as Gruber put it, they’ll be ‘relabelled.’ Nobody will notice these “cancellations.”
In fact, large-employer plans don’t even have to conform to those coverage requirements (they do have to follow certain other rules). And the share of workers in grandfathered plans has been shrinking for several years – from 56 percent in 2011 to 36 percent this year – yet we only started hearing about this as an issue in the past few weeks.
In the small-group market, some plans may need to add a missing benefit – maybe pediatric dental and vision care, for example – and premiums will rise accordingly, but that’s a far cry from Roy’s spin.
The reality, according to a 2012 study by the Urban Institute, is that “95 percent of those with some type of insurance coverage (employer, nongroup, public) without reform will have the same type of coverage under the ACA .” Maybe a different plan name, but the same type of coverage.
Yet one can be certain that Roy’s claim that 93 million Americans will be harmed when their insurance policies are “canceled,” while misleading on its face, will be ricocheting around the conservative media, taken as prime evidence that Obamacare is ruining millions of lives when, as Jonathan Gruber puts it, 97 percent of Americans are either untouched by the law or are clearly winners.
See Jonathan Cohn’s “Obamacare Policy Cancellations: Why the Non-Group Market Needed Fixing,” and Ryan Lizza’s “Obamacare’s Three Percent.” Also check out my earlier piece, “Rash of Lazy, Sensational Reporting is Freaking People Out About Obamacare,” and “Another Obamacare Horror Story Debunked,” by Michael Hiltzick in the LA Times.