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Michael Hiltzik

I doubted Heritage could run a 'straight' news site. I was right.

Heritage Foundation's "straight" news site runs a warped story on Obamacare

Back in May, the right-wing Heritage Foundation launched the Daily Signal, which it said would be a paragon of nonpartisan "just true, straight-down-the-middle journalism."  

I placed this in the you-gotta-be-kidding-me category. And this week, the Daily Signal proudly unburdened itself of a major investigation of the Affordable Care Act that proves our point. It's chock-full of bogus numbers, basic misunderstandings and tendentious verbiage.

The piece is headlined "Obamacare Exchanges are 'Disappointing' With Fewer than 4 Million Newly Insured. The Government Hoped for 26 Million." Misleading on both counts. 

Its author is Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter whose name is familiar to followers of partisan news reporting; she left CBS earlier this year after having "grown frustrated with what she saw as the network’s liberal bias," according to Politico. Followers of science-challenged reporting on health issues know her as a promoter of the thoroughly discredited claim that autism is linked to childhood vaccinations.

Back to her Daily Signal article. I will start with the headline claims. "Fewer than 4 million newly uninsured" is a figure resulting from an artfully narrow definition of Obamacare and extremely conservative math.

Attkisson is counting only on-exchange enrollments in qualified health plans, leaving out off-exchange enrollments in those same plans; she's using a figure for total enrollments that is almost certainly outdated and an overly conservative ratio for the number of enrollees who have paid their first-month premiums. Correct for all that, as ACA statistics-tracker Charles Gaba has done, and you come up with 4.1 million previously uninsureds now enrolled via the state and federal exchanges. But you've still left out off-exchange enrollments totaling an additional 8 million, of whom Gaba estimates 1.5 million are newly insured.

Who is it that the headline quotes as finding this "disappointing," by the way? According to the story, it's an unnamed source "who supports and helped implement Obamacare but is disappointed with the results to date." That helps.

"Is the new law effective in reducing the number of uninsured? Yes, but so far not very," this anonymous source told Attkisson. 

Gaba's comprehensive demolition of the Attkisson piece is here. Brian Beutler of the New Republic weighs in here.

What about the assertion that "the government hoped for 26 million" newly insured? This is just a baseless attempt at mind-reading. "The government" never said what it hoped for, or over what period. Certainly the Obama administration never projected that 26 million uninsured Americans would have new insurance by now, less than six months after the individual exchanges opened for business. 

Most egregiously, Attkisson treats Obamacare as comprising only the exchanges. But a crucial part of the program is the expansion of Medicaid, which has added about 6.1 million Americans to the insurance rolls in the states that implemented the expansion.

Though she cites research from the Rand Corp. and Gallup estimating the ranks of the newly insured at between 9.3 million and 11 million persons, Attkisson tries to finesse the findings by stating that "it’s unclear how much of the drop can be credited to Obamacare and how much to other factors, such as changes to Medicaid enrollment." Those new Medicaid enrollments, of course, are Obamacare. 

No matter from what direction one approaches the statistics--whether one uses the surveys by Rand and Gallup showing appreciable reductions in the uninsured, or builds to the figure from exchange and Medicaid enrollment data from the states and federal governments, as Gaba does--a fair assessment of the Affordable Care Act thus far places the number of newly insured Americans at about 11 million.

That's close to 30% of the more than 36 million people eligible for coverage under the ACA. Unless you assume that every eligible person would line up to enroll instantaneously, that's an impressive record. The "government's" expectations, to use Attkisson's formulation, was that the enrollment process would unfold over a period of years--and that was without the determined interference of Republican regimes in many states. 

After my skeptical post about the Daily Signal ran in May, its editor, Rob Bluey, emailed me to say, "hope we'll be able to show you we're serious." Not so far, Rob.

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.

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