Star-Telegram incident is a cautionary tale about ‘Obamacare horror stories’

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

In November, the Fort Worth Star Telegram wrote about several people who were “losing” under the Affordable Care Act. A month later it ended up having to do a pretty significant mea culpa by executive editor Jim Witt.

The flaws in the story caught the attention of health care blogger and author Maggie Mahar. Some of the accounts of people who lost their old policies and were facing stupendous prices for lousy new Obamacare policies didn’t ring true. A 26-year-old woman, even one with multiple sclerosis, wasn’t going to have to pay up to $1,800 a month for coverage that was inferior to what she had before.

So Mahar did a bit of reporting of her own.

She found that several people interviewed for the story had connections to the tea party or similar views and that that 26-year-old with MS had actually found decent affordable coverage on the exchange after all. (Her two posts on www.healthinsurance.org are here and here.) Others were having trouble with the marketplace website – but might have gotten a better deal had they pursued coverage on the exchange. One person refused to check the government-run website on ideological grounds – which should have been a red flag.

“Why is this important? “ Mahar wrote. “This major daily’s nearly 200,000 daily readers saw the story that would lead them to believe that Americans who received cancellation notices were “left in limbo.” Most, it concluded, would wind up uninsured – or paying more than they could afford. As I’ve pointed out many times – and as more and more coverage is revealing – the opposite is true.”

She contacted the reporter and editors and eventually heard about a story put together under deadline – with editors who were putting more emphasis on “bad” experiences with the ACA than “good” ones.

The paper didn’t retract the story and Witt said Mahar had overstated the problems. But he did acknowledge that the story did have big problems.

“Her main point hit the mark – we did not do our job completely and therefore let our readers down,” he wrote. “We didn’t have our radar turned on strong enough to spot the hole.”

The lessons in writing about “horror stories?” You can – and should – find out about your sources with a bit of Googling or by asking them questions. Certainly there’s no reason you can’t quote opponents of the ACA – but they then shouldn’t be held up as examples of what ACA plans offer if they have chosen not to find out. You can check their claims about the costs and coverage on the exchange by interviewing a broker or looking at one of the reasonably good calculator/estimators. For those of you who wrote about people having trouble in October or November, now might be a really good time to follow up. Did they find something better? Worse? Not sure? Still looking?

2 thoughts on “Star-Telegram incident is a cautionary tale about ‘Obamacare horror stories’

  1. Micah Weinberg

    The irony here is that there really are a lot of people who are having to transition to similar or worse insurance for higher cost. And there have been a lot stories about that, albeit ones that don’t always explain why people’s insurance HAS to be changed for this all to work. And they also tend not to explain that insurance companies changing benefits and premiums is something that happens ALL THE TIME, not interesting that it is happening as a result of ACA.

  2. Pingback: Health Wonk Review for January 16, 2014

Comments are closed.