Right-Wing Media Feed False Panic Over Obamacare Premiums

Right-wing media outlets have seized on an anonymously sourced and highly speculative article in The Hill that dubiously proclaimed health care premiums are going to “skyrocket” under the Affordable Care Act.

In a March 19 post on The Hill's Healthwatch blog with the headline “O-care premiums to skyrocket,” Elise Viebeck quoted anonymous health insurance industry officials to claim that “ObamaCare-related premiums will double in some parts of the country, countering claims recently made by the administration.”

The article and its claim about rising premiums was hyped across the right-wing media. National Review Online claimed “there's only so much massaging of the truth and flat-out lying that one can do before the headlines catch up with the deceit.” Hot Air's Ed Morrissey cited The Hill, writing, “ObamaCare has bent the cost curve all right, but sharply upward -- and in 2015, expect them to not just bend but absolutely 'skyrocket.'” Fox Nation highlighted the post under the headline “300%: Insurance Industry Predicts Skyrocketing ObamaCare Premiums”:


Despite the certainty implied by the post's headline, the reality is far more complicated. While Viebeck chose to play up the claims made by her anonymous insurance industry sources, the article also cites health policy experts who pointed out that it's far too early to make predictions about “expected rate hikes”:

Other health experts say predictions about premiums are premature.

David Cutler, who has been called an architect of Obama-Care, said, “Health premiums increase every year, so the odds are very good that they will increase next year as well.  None of that is news.  The question is whether it will be a lot or a little.  That depends in part on how big the insurers think the exchanges will be.”

Jon Gruber, who also helped design the Affordable Care Act, said, “The bottom line is that we just don't know. Premiums were rising 7 to 10 percent a year before the law. So the question is whether we will see a continuation of that sort of single digit increase, as Sebelius said, or whether it will be larger.”

In The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn pointed out that, “the real news here is more complicated and ambiguous.” Because the health care market is not monolithic, premiums may rise for some people and fall for others, but the ACA includes provisions intended to alleviate both high premiums and market instability.

A big problem with the Obamacare debate is the tendency for everybody to think of implementation in extreme terms -- the law is working, or the law is not working. That's particularly true of the law's critics, who see in every negative development signs of catastrophic failure. The reality is that, particularly after one year, the law will be a mix of successes and setbacks, with lots of variation across the country. That muddle, combined with the huge uncertainty of what happens next, ought to give everybody pause before drawing hasty conclusions. It's safe to assume that won't happen here.

In the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore noted that the claims made by Viebeck's anonymous sources are contradicted by other industry executives:

If you actually read the accompanying article by Elise Viebeck, the rather alarming assertion is mostly a collection of blind quotes from “health industry officials.” Yes, one former Cigna executive went on the record to say his “gut” tells him premiums could go up, which is of course very convincing. Otherwise the closest Viebeck gets to attribution is an “insurance official who hails from a populous swing state.”


And the “premiums to skyrocket” claim directly contradicts a variety of on-the-record assessments by health insurance executives -- e.g., Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, Wellpoint president Joe Swedish, and Cigna CEO David Cordani -- that the Obamacare premium structure is working out relatively well. And the most reliable independent study, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, concluded that the much-feared “death spiral” of premiums that Viebeck seems to be predicting as a reality for much of the country is very unlikely to occur.