Fact-checking the Obamacare fact-checkers

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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How much benefit of the doubt should Obamacare get at this point? It depends on who you ask.

The state of Colorado estimated that nearly 250,000 residents received cancellation notices from their insurance companies because their plans didn’t comply with Obamacare. Sen. Mark Udall’s office told them to count differently.

Udall’s team argued that many of these Coloradans would be able to renew or get other coverage from their insurance companies. But the state’s insurance division held firm: “Cancellation notices affected 249,199 people. … Many have already done early renewals. Regardless, they received cancellation notices.”

Well, debating the definition of “cancellation” is at least more edifying than holding forth on the meaning of “is.”

Defining Obamacare success down is not exclusively a pastime for Democratic officials. Nonpartisan fact-checkers have also been generous in giving Obamacare the benefit of the doubt.

Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times‘ widely respected fact-checking operation repeatedly refused to correct the various permutations of President Barack Obama’s “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” promise.

In six separate columns between 2008 and 2012, Politifact declined to correctly assess the promise as false. The group also rated Republican claims that people would lose health insurance as either half-true or false.

As late as November 2013, Politifact found Obamacare opponents “guilty of oversimplifying Obama’s original ‘if you like it’ promise.

Politifact editor Angie Drobnic Holan defended rating Obama’s health plan pledge as no worse than “half-true” in a column around the same time.

“Embrace the nuance,” Holan advised aspiring fact-checkers before delving into the health care law. Yes, the “cancellation notices that have gone out to people in the individual market directly contradict [Obama’s] statement.”

“But Obama wasn’t entirely off-base, either,” Holan continued, before explaining the president’s reasoning. “It was a way of letting people know that his plan wasn’t a single-payer, Canadian-style proposal.”

“The health care law touched almost every part of the health care system, in ways both major and minor,” she concluded. “It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations.”

Or is it? As the Washington Examiner‘s Sean Higgins observed, “rating something as ‘half true’ when it is flat-out false is still missing the mark by a significant margin.”

In December 2013, Politifact finally designated “If you like your plan” the lie of the year.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler already awarded the “If you like your plan” promise “Four Pinocchios” for being false and rated it among the top “Pinocchios” of 2013. But Kessler is still giving Obamacare too much benefit of the doubt.

According to Kessler, a report on Obamacare’s impact on health coverage by Sarah Hurtubise of The Daily Caller News Foundation deserves “Four Pincchios” and is “obviously mistaken.” House Speaker John Boehner is merely “technically correct but… misleading” for citing Hurtubise’s article in a tweet.

But the central point of the story — Obamacare debuts with more cancelled plans than enrollments — is true. The Associated Press reported that more than 4.7 million Americans had their insurance plans cancelled while the government reported that only about 2.1 million enrolled in insurance plans through the Obamacare exchanges. (Bear in mind that according to the Washington Post an insurance plan doesn’t have to be paid for a person to count as “enrolled.”)

Kessler doesn’t contest these numbers, but he does seize on the phrase “without coverage,” arguing that most of the people whose plans were cancelled would not end up uninsured. He also cited estimates that 3.9 million were covered by Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Unlike “If you like your plan,” the article Kessler is critiquing is longer than a sentence. The story goes on to describe the measures taken to extend coverage for those whose plans were cancelled.

Leaving aside the research findings that Medicaid can by some measures be worse than having no health insurance at all, the Medicaid expansion isn’t germane to the law’s impact on private health insurance. Many reports on Obamacare enrollment numbers take pains to separate private insurance bought through the exchanges and Medicaid.

It is Kessler who is relying on “a misleading accounting of apples and oranges.”

Kessler takes the maximum number of people who could benefit from various Obamacare fixes at face value, writing that “as many as 2.3 million people” may be able to stay on their cancelled plan for up to a year or that a catastrophic exemption will “affect as many as 500,000 people.”

But the first fix isn’t mandatory. At least nine states have decided against reinstating the only plans, including California and New York. Aetna, an insurer that covers over 50 million Americans, is also rejecting the fix.

Kessler doesn’t provide any serious evidence for how many people actually got new coverage through these fixes and he likely doesn’t know the real number. “There likely was a seamless transition from one plan to the other, though the premiums might have increased because the [Affordable Care Act] requires all plans to have the same basic level of benefits,” he writes.

How many people actually experienced “a seamless transition from one plan to the other?” Kessler links to just one letter.

Obamacare was sold as providing universal coverage. Would the Affordable Care Act have passed if it was seen as just a Medicaid expansion plus churn between old insurance plans and new ACA-compliant ones? Especially if “the premiums might have increased?”

If that’s the outcome of Obamacare at this point, Hurtubise notes, “it’s fair to count that as a point against the law.”

Maybe Kessler, like Politifact, will come around. So far, Obamacare hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.