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“Nobody Died”: No, Obamacare’s Flaws Are Not Like Hurricane Katrina

It’s one thing for former George W. Bush flack and Sarah Palin staffer Nicolle Wallace to make a silly and self-serving link between the troubled rollout of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and her boss’s handling of, wait for it, Hurricane Katrina. It’s another for the New York Times to pick up the cudgel and seriously make a comparison between the Affordable Care Act’s acknowledged problems and the deadly 2005 tragedy.

But that’s what the paper did Friday morning, with Michael D. Shear’s “Health Law Rollout’s Stumbles Draw Comparisons to Bush’s Hurricane Response.” Other media are using the Times piece to make the same comparison. ABC’s “Good Morning America” did a whole segment on it; as I write, the chyron on MSNBC asks “Obama’s Katrina?”

Shear put it this way:

The disastrous rollout of [Obama’s} health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency….

“The echoes to the fall of 2005 are really eerie,” said Peter D. Feaver, a top national security official in Mr. Bush’s second term. “Katrina, which is shorthand for bungled administration policy, matches to the rollout of the website.”

No, Mr. Feaver, Katrina isn’t shorthand for “bungled administration policy.” It’s an actual tragedy in which at least 1,800 people lost their lives. Thousands of others were left stranded without food or water in their flooded neighborhoods, on freeway viaducts, in hospitals and nursing homes, and in the televised hell-hole of the Superdome. A million people were displaced, some of them permanently. Whole neighborhoods remain unrestored eight years later. There was at least $123 million in destruction, twice as much as in Hurricane Sandy.

In the ACA holocaust, by comparison, an undetermined number of people may lose health insurance policies they like. Many more, perhaps millions, have been frustrated by a kludgy website. On the other hand, at least 100,000 have signed up for insurance through the exchanges and another 500,000 or so have been newly covered by Medicaid expansion.

Oh, and there have been zero deaths as a result of the ACA woes — unless you count the death of credibility among journalists and pundits who would make such a lame and cruel comparison.

In Katrina, a toxic mix of indifference to the plight of poor, black New Orleans residents and genuine colorblind incompetence made a natural disaster worse. Bush, you’ll recall, threw a birthday party for Sen. John McCain, and then flew over the ravaged Gulf region without stopping. When he did visit, he praised his lame FEMA director Michael Brown – whose job as a commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association had been great training for running the nation’s disaster preparedness agency – with the iconic “Heckuva job, Brownie.”

Obama, by contrast, stepped forward when the website troubles emerged. “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” he told a crowd Oct. 21. It’s still not fixed, although it’s working better, and the president has continued to push his staff for answers and apologize for the rollout woes, last week in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd; last night in a press conference. “There were times I thought we got slapped around unjustly,” the president said. “This one is deserved. It’s on us.” There has been nothing close to a “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment.

Finally, in Hurricane Katrina, most of the victims were poor African-Americans. In the current ACA controversy, the vast majority of people losing their private insurance policies are young and middle-aged white men who aren’t affluent, but are doing well enough that they don’t qualify for federal subsidies. That makes the Katrina-ACA comparison particularly outrageous, especially for journalists.

All that will ultimately matter is whether and when the site gets fixed, and the turmoil in the individual market, where some people are losing policies they want to keep, subsides. We still don’t know if the president’s proposed “fix,” which should let at least some of those folks hold onto their existing insurance, is meaningful enough to quell the political panic among some Democrats and people losing insurance, yet limited enough that it doesn’t undermine the goal of getting a bigger pool of people into the individual market for ACA-approved health insurance plans (rather than the junk insurance that currently dominates the individual market).

It’s clearly a mess, with genuine political and public policy implications. It’s fine for shrill Republicans to call it Obama’s Katrina, or his Iraq, or his Iran Contra – when it comes to this president, they have no credibility and they have no shame; they’ll say anything. But for the media to pick up on the GOP narrative and sincerely compare the ACA rollout stumble to a national tragedy like Hurricane Katrina?

Someone might call it the media’s Katrina — if it was fair to use a tragedy in which thousands died as a metaphor for mere incompetence. So I’ll just call it incredibly lame.


By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, November 15, 2013

November 16, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Katrina | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Those Pray That You Don’t Get Sick Plans”: Replacing Poor Health Insurance Plans With Good Ones

We’ve known for several years that once the Affordable Care Act is implemented, substandard insurance plans would be replaced with better, stronger coverage. Nevertheless, as lots of folks learn that their old plans are being replaced, this has led to a variety of overheated reports featuring shocked consumers. (That insurers routinely dropped Americans’ coverage under the old system is often overlooked.)

Leading much of the coverage is a woman named Dianne Barrette, a 56-year-old resident of Winter Haven, Fla., who’s made a flurry of television appearances after Blue Cross/Blue Shield informed her that her old plan is being replaced with a new one, and her new coverage will be more expensive. “What I have right now is what I’m happy with, and I just want to know why I can’t keep what I have,” she said on CBS. “Why do I have to be forced into something else?”

To his credit, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took a closer look at the anecdotal evidence.

More coverage may provide a deeper understanding of the ins and outs of Barrette’s situation: Her current health insurance plan, she says, doesn’t cover “extended hospital stays; it’s not designed for that,” says Barrette. Well, does it cover any hospitalization? “Outpatient only,” responds Barrette. Nor does it cover ambulance service and some prenatal care. On the other hand, says Barrette, it does cover “most of my generic drugs that I need” and there’s a $50 co-pay for doctors’ appointments. “It’s all I could afford right now,” says Barrette.

In sum, it’s a pray-that-you-don’t-really-get-sick “plan.”

If this woman had a serious ailment and was forced to stay in the hospital for a while, her old plan would have likely destroyed her financial life permanently, leaving her bankrupt. Now, thanks to “Obamacare,” in the event of a disaster, she’ll be protected with coverage her insurer can’t take away – with no annual or lifetime caps.

In other words, the new horror story for critics of the health care law features a middle-aged woman trading a bad plan for a good plan, and health care insecurity for health care security.

What’s more, while much of the coverage of Barrette’s situation has focused on the higher monthly cost of her new, better insurance plan, there’s another detail that’s been overlooked by some: she’ll be eligible for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. The cost of the coverage isn’t what she’ll actually have to pay out of her own pocket.

If it seems like this keeps coming up, with Republicans and news outlets latching onto anecdotes that seem to cast the health care law in a negative light, only to look much better upon closer scrutiny, that’s because this keeps happening. If the law were as awful as detractors claim, shouldn’t it be easier to find legitimate victims?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 29, 2013

October 30, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reporters Aren’t Above The Law”: The Media Shouldn’t Have Freer Speech Or Special Immunities From Investigation

Secret government investigations into speech protected by the First Amendment should alarm all of us. But we all have the same First Amendment rights; reporters don’t have freer speech. And giving reporters a special privilege to withhold evidence too often leads to lazy reporting in which nameless “official sources” get to make false accusations against innocent people without any accountability for either the government or the press. Instead of lobbying for a special privilege, reporters should consistently fight for more liberty for all Americans, including greater freedom of speech and greater freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Associated Press is understandably outraged that the government used secret subpoenas to get phone records that might reveal who leaked classified information to the news wire. But the real problem is not that the government is investigating the AP; it is that the government is investigating speech about government operations. That would be just as troubling if the targets were non-journalists.

The government claims the AP’s reporting contained classified information, but that’s hard to avoid when so much of what the government does is classified. The temptation to overclassify and underdisclose must be very powerful; each administration promises greater transparency, yet each turns out to be worse than the last. That frustrates the control we’re supposed to have over our government.

Media companies think the answer is to give their employees special immunities from investigation. But reporters aren’t always right, either. Sometimes they team up with government leakers to wreck the lives of innocent men and women whom the leakers want to disparage publicly, like Steven Hatfill, Wen Ho Lee or Richard Jewell. When that happens, the victims have rights too. Reporters (like everyone else) have a duty to provide the evidence necessary to do justice. No one should be above the law.

A better answer is to tighten the rules for when government can act in secret and provide more protections for whistleblowers. That gives us the benefit of more public discourse about public policy without giving the press a license to smear.

Our government does too many things in the dark, and the press is often at its best when it shines a light on previously unknown programs or policies that we ought to debate publicly. We need laws that help the press shine a light on government actions, not laws that permit reporters to join government officials in the shadows.


By: Mark Grannis, Debate Club, U. S. News and World Report, May 16, 2013

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Media, Press | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Fact Checking Fails”: Can Journalists Stand Up To A Candidate’s Lies?

I’ve made my case that Mitt Romney just might be the most dishonest presidential candidate in modern history, but the question is, what should we do about it? Or more specifically, what should reporters do about it? One of the worst things about “objective” he said/she said coverage is that it basically gives candidates permission to lie by removing any kind of disincentive they might feel for not telling the truth. After all, candidates are (mostly) rational actors, and if lying isn’t accompanied by any kind of punishment, they’re going to do it as long as it works.

I’m not sure that Mitt Romney’s Medicare lies are actually producing a positive effect other than tickling the Republican base deep down in the secret corner of its id, but he’s certainly sticking with it. All of which led Prospect alum Garance Franke-Ruta to suggest one possible solution:

Fact-checking was a great development in accountability journalism — but perhaps it’s time for a new approach. It’s no longer enough to outsource the fact-checking to the fact-checkers in a news environment where every story lives an independent life on the social Web and there’s no guarantee the reader of any given report will ever see a bundled version of the news or the relevant fact-checking column, which could have been published months earlier. One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.

Objective news outlets had to deal with this last cycle, too. Remember the huge controversy over how to cover the allegations that Obama was a Muslim without just publicizing the smear — or suggesting that there is anything wrong with being Muslim?

The solution now as then lies in repeated boilerplate, either inserted by editors who back-stop their writers, or by writers who save it as B-matter (background or pre-written text) so they don’t have to come up with a new way of saying something every single time they file. Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.

“Obama, who is a Christian” was the macro of the 2008 cycle in reporting on the “Barack Obama is a Muslim” smears. Also widely used: “the false allegation that Obama is Muslim.” Such careful writing may not have done much to disabuse nearly a fifth of Americans of the idea that Obama is a Muslim — national newspaper stories can influence elite opinion while barely making a dent on widely held views in a nation of more than 300 million — but they provided readers with an accurate sense of the facts while learning about a politically significant campaign development.

I agree with Garance up to a point. There’s nothing wrong with fact-checking as a journalistic enterprise, but if its purpose is to stop lies, it’s not working. Let me excerpt a post I wrote about this last November, where I asked whether fact-checking works:

The first is, does it change politicians’ behavior? Is a candidate who gets called out for a lie in a fact check going to stop saying it? I posed that question to Bill Adair, who runs PolitiFact, when I interviewed him for a story about this topic that never actually found its way into print (long story). Adair’s response was that changing politicians’ behavior isn’t his job; he and his organization put their best assessment of the facts on the record, and then whatever happens next is basically out of their hands.

One could design a study to determine whether lies are less likely to be repeated once the fact checkers have judged them harshly, but no one that I know of has done it. The consensus from people I’ve talked to about this seems to be that it depends on who the liar is. The narrower their constituency, the more likely they are to continue on unashamed even after being called out for lying. Michele Bachmann doesn’t really care if PolitiFact says one of her claims is bogus. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is more concerned about his reputation and therefore more likely to stop saying something once it has been called a lie.

Ha! Well, I guess that’s in the past now. But the next question is, if journalists were actually saying, over and over whenever they reported on Romney’s welfare attack, something like, “Romney repeated his false allegation that the Obama administration has ended work requirements (in fact, the work requirements remain in place)…” would that make Mitt stop saying it? It might, and it would certainly be better than the way they’re handling it now. But the truth is that to really stop a lie in its tracks, the lie itself has to be the topic of stand-alone news stories. Once he sees headlines reading, “Romney Repeating False Accusation On Stump,” with the story full of people condemning him for it, then he’ll stop. Because at that point, he’ll begin to worry that the next round of stories will have headlines like “Romney’s Truth Troubles: Republican Nominee Can’t Seem to Stick to Facts.” Those stories won’t just be about the particular lie in question, they’ll be about Mitt’s character and what kind of pathology pushes him to keep lying. Those are the kind of stories Al Gore got in 2000 (unfairly, but that’s its own story).

Making a story out of the lie itself would require journalists to get pissed off enough to take a stand. But you know what? They should be pissed off. Romney is using them as a conduit for his deception, because he knows they don’t have the guts to say no.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 16, 2012

August 17, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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