Newspapers Give Texas HHS Commissioner A Pass On His Health Insurance Trutherism
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The three largest newspapers in Texas have so far failed to report on comments made by Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Dr. Kyle Janek over the past two months in which he claimed not to believe the official number of people without health insurance in Texas. Nearly two weeks after Republican Gov. Rick Perry officially notified the federal government that Texas would not be setting up a health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act to help people get insurance, readers of the Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram remain in the dark about the out-of-touch comments from by the governor's social services czar, according to a Media Matters analysis.
In September and again in October, Janek discussed the problem of uninsured Texans at forums held by the Texas Tribune. During his first comments at the Texas Tribune Festival, Janek said he did not believe the Census Bureau's statistics describing the percentage of uninsured Texans -- which currently stands at 26.3 percent -- because according to him, the Census Bureau asked the wrong question.
In October, Janek re-framed his position telling the Texas Tribune during a one on one discussion with Texas Tribune founder Eric Smith that the Census Bureau asked "a question" instead of saying they asked the wrong question.
From a transcript of a video (at the 13:40 mark) posted by the Texas Tribune:
ERIC SMITH (TEXAS TRIBUNE): Let me ask you a broader question about the state of health policy in Texas and the uninsured. You know that the U.S. Census Bureau some six weeks ago put out a report that said that Texas now has 5.8 million uninsured citizens, 23 percent of our population, which makes us first among the states in the percentage of our citizens insured. You gave an interview to Emily Ramshaw of the Tribune at the Texas Tribune Festival in which you basically said I don't believe those statistics. This is the U.S. Census Bureau, not Public Policy Polling. It's a little hard to argue that the polls are skewed when the numbers are coming from the Census Bureau Dr. Janek, don't you think?
DR. KYLE JANEK (TEXAS HHSC): Umm, no their numbers are accurate for the question that they asked.
SMITH: So you think they asked the wrong question?
JANEK: No I don't, I think they asked a question.
SMITH: A question.
JANEK: Not the wrong question, it's a question. And here's the issue. If you go out now today and you go knock on doors as the Census Bureau does and do it by letter and say, "Do you have insurance," a lot of folks will say no, it doesn't mean they won't have insurance next week, it doesn't mean they will have insurance next week, it could be years before they have insurance again, it's a snapshot.
Later in the video Smith does push back on Janek's assertion that the Census Bureau had inaccurate data. However, these numbers shouldn't come as a surprise to new commissioner. As RH Reality Check points out, these numbers have remained consistent since 1987:
Janek must not be aware that for nearly 25 years, the Census Bureau's "snapshot" has shown practically the same thing: since 1987, Texas repeatedly has one of the highest, or the very highest, number of uninsured adults in the country. That rate has not been below 1987's 23 percent; it peaked at 26.8 percent in 2009 and is currently estimated at 26.2 percent.
As Texas Tribune pointed out in its first report pushing back on the comments, the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey -- which does ask if the respondent had health insurance within the last year -- still puts the uninsured rate at about a quarter of the population:
There's a flip side to his first argument: The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, which asks whether respondents had health insurance at any point in the previous year, also puts Texas' rate of uninsured at about a quarter of the population. That survey is much smaller -- it has a national sample size of 100,000 addresses -- but is more detailed and conducted by more experienced staff.
"The suggestion that Texas would shoot to the top because of the way the question is asked -- I cannot think of any reason why anything would be different here," said Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities. "The same conditions exist here that exist in the whole country, except we have more people uninsured, and we're spending billions of dollars in local property taxes" on hospital care.
While Texas Tribune pushed back on his comments, newspapers in Texas failed to hold the commissioner accountable. According to a Media Matters analysis of coverage on Nexis and the newspapers' websites, since his appointment at the end of July, none of the three Texas newspapers examined wrote about Janek's controversial comments, and only one gave him more than a passing mention. On November 11, almost a month and a half after Janek's initial comments, the Chronicle wrote a piece spotlighting Janek's health care strategies in Texas, and, in an almost laudatory tone, said his appointment "couldn't come at a better time for private hospitals."
From the Chronicle:
The appointment of Janek, a Houston physician, couldn't come at a better time for private hospitals like Memorial Hermann, Methodist and St. Luke's. He's an important ally at a time when the balance of power is shifting dramatically.
Janek recently sparred with Coleman at a public hearing of the House County Affairs Committee, which Coleman chairs. The Houston Democrat noted pointedly that health care districts - not the private hospitals - will put up tax dollars to win an estimated $29 billion in extra federal dollars.
The private hospitals, he complained, "are crying and hollering about someone else's money." He also objected to complaints from private business entities that are "aligned" politically with politicians who oppose government-funded health care.
This wasn't the first time the Chronicle has discussed Janek and failed to push back on his Census skepticism. After the second interview with the Texas Tribune, the Chronicle published a piece that included comments he made at the Tribune event, but the paper again failed to mention or dispute his assertions about the number of uninsured in Texas, instead discussing his opinion on Planned Parenthood's role in the new Texas Women's Health Program.
Despite not holding Janek accountable, the Chronicle has not shied away from discussing the uninsured in Texas. In August they dedicated an entire article to the Census Bureau findings -- the same one Janek claimed didn't provide the whole picture -- noting that Texas' overall percentage of uninsured residents was 26.3 percent. Earlier this month, the Chronicle again discussed the number of uninsured in Texas, writing that the state has the second-highest number of uninsured residents in the nation, but again failed to mention the health commissioner's unfounded skepticism.
While the facts go against Janek's assertion, the more troubling aspect is the failure of the major newspapers in Texas to hold the Commissioner of Health and Human Services accountable for his comments.