Reporting Out Obamacare Uncertainty

The coverage of the Affordable Care Act's troubled rollout has been marked by a spate of overheated and sensationalist health plan “cancellation” stories spotlighting consumers who have been told by their insurance companies that they're being moved to more expensive plans. In most cases these stories rely on a lack of context and withhold key details about how these consumers can potentially benefit under the law. They also demonstrate a worrying lack of skepticism towards the behavior of the insurance companies.

The latest example comes from the New York Times, which reports on three average Americans who are being “forced out of their existing health insurance plans” as the ACA takes effect. “One expects to pay more. One expects to pay less. And one is just trying to figure it all out,” the Times reports. At first glance it looks like a neat cover-all-the-angles trifecta. When you dig a little deeper into the article, though, some warning signs start flashing.

The person who expects to pay more is Charles Nance, a 57-year-old “home inspector in suburban St. Louis.” Nance was informed by his current insurer, Anthem BlueCross BlueShield, that his current plan is being dropped because it doesn't comply with the ACA's minimum standards, so the company was going to sign him up for a considerably more expensive plan “that would cost twice as much” per month in premiums.

That sounds pretty bad! But then a few more details creep in, buried at the end of the article. “He said he does not qualify for federal subsidies,” the Times reported on Mr. Nance, “and has had difficulty signing onto the online marketplace to evaluate his options.” And then there's this: “For now, he has purchased a one-year plan through United Healthcare that is similar in price and features to his existing plan.” He “expects to pay more,” but he's already found another plan “that is similar in price and features”? So he's not actually paying more. He just expects to pay more under the ACA, even though he hasn't been able to actually evaluate the options available to him under the law.

This would have been a good moment for the Times to do a little more digging. Not knowing the precise details of Mr. Nance's situation makes it tough to know what options he can pursue, but we know from the article that he's 57 years old, both he and his wife will need coverage, and he lives in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. We also know that the plan Anthem BlueCross BlueShield is trying to foist on him will cost just over $1,000 a month, which means he was paying somewhere in the range of $500 for his old plan. When you search for plans available in St. Louis County for an individual and their spouse, it spits back a whole range of plans with estimated monthly premiums that are roughly comparable to what Mr. Nance was paying before.

Again, this is based on just the bare-bones details of Mr. Nance's situation and shouldn't be considered definitive, but as it stands his “expectation” that he will pay more thanks to the ACA wasn't borne out by any of the details reported in the article. It was informed solely by the actions of his insurance company, which has an obvious interest in getting him to pay more for his health care.