Opinion

Jack Shafer

The flimflam of this week’s Obamacare numbers

Jack Shafer
Sep 27, 2013 21:13 UTC

At midweek, the Department of Health and Human Services released its report on the health plan choices and insurance premiums available under the Affordable Care Act, which opens for enrollment on Oct. 1 in 36 states.

The HHS press release accompanying the report glistened with the positivity of a group hug, starting with its headline, “Significant choice and lower than expected premiums available in the new Health Insurance Marketplace.” The press release’s feel-good theme of “lower than expected premiums” ricocheted up and down many news columns the next day.

“Cost may be under forecasts”; “Obamacare To Cost Less, Feds Say”; “Rates from insurance exchanges lower than projected for most, HHS says”; and “Report: Georgia Obamacare premiums lower than expected”; read the print headlines in the Dallas Morning News, the Herald News of Passaic County, N.J., the Kansas City Business Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The upbeat message prevailed in many of the stories about the HHS report, with the Austin American-Statesman reporting that “premiums could be approximately 16 percent lower than originally expected.” (The language in the press release had it only slightly different: “Premiums nationwide will also be around 16 percent lower than originally expected.”) CBS News echoed the report, too, stating, “premiums nationwide are expected to be around 16 percent lower than originally predicted,” as did the Detroit News and other outlets.

If “lower than expected” sounds like a shady retailer’s sales pitch to your ears, you’re on my wavelength. “Expected by whom?” is the first question that comes to the clever shopper’s mind. The HHS press release and some of the news accounts answer this question: The healthcare prices being showcased by HHS were from a government estimate, as was the previous — and higher — set of numbers, which were projected from Congressional Budget Office calculations (pdf). In other words, the only thing that has changed is the government’s best educated guess of what health coverage will cost, state-by-state, in the 36 states where the federal insurance exchanges operate.

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

Jack Shafer
Jun 28, 2012 21:07 UTC

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

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