Insurance Companies Got You Down? Stupid Obamacare!

It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It's Obama's fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama!

OK, so maybe it won't be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here's an instructive case in exactly how this plays out. Take a look at this article that ran in yesterday's Washington Post, telling how in order to keep premiums down and attract customers, some insurers are limiting their networks. "As Americans have begun shopping for health plans on the insurance exchanges," the article tells us, "they are discovering that insurers are restricting their choice of doctors and hospitals in order to keep costs low, and that many of the plans exclude top-rated hospitals."

So insurance companies—private actors seeking to maximize profit—are making decisions that some potential customers find less than perfectly appealing. The article itself is clear about why this is happening, but in the newspaper's print edition, the subtitle read, "Exchanges Exclude Doctors, Hospitals." Of course, that's completely false. The exchanges haven't excluded any doctors and hospitals, the insurance companies offering plans on the exchanges have made a decision to exclude them. The insurance companies are perfectly free to make a different decision, but they've decided not to.

So the newspaper runs this story, with the headline writers mistakenly portraying what for some small number of people is an unwelcome development as a decision made by the Obama administration. Conservatives will then take articles like this and others like it, and say, "See? Obama said you could keep your doctor! He lied! This law is a disaster!" Barack Obama never said that he'd forbid any insurance company from ever changing anyone's policy or offering policies that provide something less than spectacularly gold-plated coverage at absurdly low prices. But now, every profit-maximizing decision by a corporation becomes Barack Obama's fault.

The second component of Barack Obama coming to own all the problems with the health-care system is that with the rollout of the ACA, you suddenly have a lot of political reporters doing stories on health care, and many of them have only the thinnest understanding of the law. That limited understanding makes it easier for them to just focus on whatever negative things are happening in health care, blaming them on the ACA, and assuring themselves that they've been appropriately "tough" in their reporting.

There's nothing wrong with reporters fully exploring all the changes our ever-evolving health-care system goes through, so long as they do it accurately. But you might notice that they are completely uninterested in the stories of people who are being helped by the Affordable Care Act. Harold Pollack estimates that there are over 10 million uninsured Americans who have significant medical issues like a cancer diagnosis or diabetes, and thus find it difficult or impossible to get insurance on the individual market under the pre-ACA system. These people will now be able to get reasonably priced insurance, which for many will be literally life-saving. But journalists find these people boring and not worth talking about. They're much more interested in people who find something problematic in the new system, and they're working hard to find every last one of those people's stories and share them with the country. And that's how Barack Obama ends up owning the health-care system.

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