Victims of Obamacare: A New Urban Legend

By Becky O'Malley
Friday November 01, 2013 - 09:40:00 AM

The discussion of the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, coming as it did around Halloween, reminded me that it’s time to extend my traditional Halloween offer: $100 to anyone who can prove that a trick-or-treater was harmed in any way by a stranger.

No one has ever, in perhaps 15 years, taken me up on it, for good reason. It just doesn’t happen.

When I first started making this offer, the media abounded in reports of razor blades in apples and similar devilish plots perpetrated on unsuspecting children. These were usually retracted—in fine print—some weeks after Halloween, but the damage was done by then.

Parents everywhere cautioned their kids to accept nothing but commercial candy, wrapped by the manufacturer. No homemade cookies, no apples—who knew what could be in them?

An occasional case of Junior sampling dad’s marijuana brownies was reported, but nothing having to do with strangers was ever proved. The useful Snopes.com exposed such stories as urban legends. Probably they were started by candy manufacturers. This year, as always, we offered kids apples along with the candy, and every year more and more have enthusiastically chosen the apples (I do live in Berkeley, after all).

How does this connect to the Affordable Care Act? This year’s razor-blades-in-apples story is how some percentage of the 5% of Americans who use privately-paid health insurance will be forced to change their coverage, even though President Obama said they wouldn’t have to. 

This is illustrated in the media with touching personal stories from residents of what I’m sorely tempted to call the “dumb states”—the states that have elected officials too stupid or venal to create their own locally-tailored systems for accessing affordable care or even to expand Medicaid with federal funding. (Thank goodness, California is not one of them.) 

The dumb-staters must use the federal front-end, and yes, it’s not quite functional yet. So there’s really no good way for newsies to know what effect Obamacare will ultimately have in any given case. But that doesn’t stop them from dutifully transcribing anyone’s outlandish claim that the sky is falling as if it were fact. And also, the media ghouls can’t know whether such people, if they exist, would be better or worse off if they needed to change insurers. Daily Kos contributors are all over the story—but the conventional newsies, including the ones on NPR who should know better, are not. 

Sometimes (often) people aren’t good judges of what’s good for them. I learned this in the course of managing two companies where all employees were offered full employer-paid insurance of their choice in an amount equivalent to what Kaiser would charge, accompanied by a strong recommendation that Kaiser offers the best bang for the buck. It’s amazing how many of them chose, instead of Kaiser, some kind of off-brand insurance which promised trendy alternatives but inevitably let them down in a crisis. 

And in fact the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act will make it possible for most lower-income citizens in that 5% group to buy whatever kind of insurance they want. If the mass media did statistics, it’s likely they’d discover when the data’s in that very few people will have to change insurance companies, and that most who do will be much safer because of it. 

Barbara Stack, the shepherd of Free Speech Movement veterans, forwarded to me a link to a very interesting utility: this One-Step Internet site for people who want to quickly calculate what it would cost them to sign up for Obamacare. By filling in a few blanks, users in a state which must rely on the federal front-end can easily determine what their options are. 

The site doesn’t calculate what subsidies would apply for a given person—it links to another, more complicated system which does that. It would, however, be possible for any reporter who’s tempted to use a sob-story from a dumb-stater to use this tool to make an educated guess about whether they’re getting a correct (or honest) analysis from the potential insurance buyer. 

Scary anecdotes without data should always be suspected of being urban legends, just as the tale about razor-blades-in-apples has proved to be. Until the federal registration site is up and running, as it will be eventually, sob-stories from dumb-state residents won’t mean much.