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Shawn Vestal: Health care horror stories more hairy than scary

Remember “Bette in Spokane”? Bette in Spokane was the anecdotal hook that Cathy McMorris Rodgers used to critique Obamacare last year when she gave the GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

Obamacare had driven up Bette’s premiums, Rodgers said, by $700 a month. But Bette’s story was too bad to be true: Some basic efforts at verification here at the newspaper made it clear that Bette’s tale was not so simple. She did have the kind of inexpensive, catastrophic coverage that the new law eliminated. But cheaper options were available, and Bette simply did not investigate them. “I wouldn’t go on that Obama website at all,” she said at the time.

This has been, more or less, the nature of the anecdotal assault on Obamacare by Rodgers and her party – loose, unverified and often uninformed personal anecdotes of questionable factual provenance. Perhaps the best example is the political ad last year in Michigan, in which a woman with leukemia claimed she’d lost her insurance and couldn’t afford its replacement – when in fact her premiums had been cut in half.

It’s not that there are not legitimate criticisms to be made or problems with the law. It’s not that there are not some people whose premiums have increased or who’ve had to switch to other plans. There are. But the truth of most of these stories are complicated, not sexy and scary and politically useful. When you put them in context, they have to stand next to facts that many people find less than upsetting: a huge increase in the number of insured Americans, an end to the practice of denying insurance to the sick, and costs coming in lower than projected.

So, five years after the law’s passage and a year after its implementation, Rodgers and her party are again seeking and peddling “stories.”

“Tell Us Your Story,” Rodgers asked on her Web page and Facebook page this week. “Whether Obamacare has turned your tax filing into a nightmare, you’re facing skyrocketing premiums, or your employer has reduced your work hours, I want to hear about it.”

What about other kinds of stories? Does Rodgers want to hear those?

It turns out that lots of people want to share them, whether or not she cares to listen. The very first comment on her Facebook page said: “My story is that I once knew 7 people who couldn’t get health insurance. Now they all have it, thanks to the ACA and President Obama, and their plans are as good as the one my employer provides – and they pay less for them. Now, that’s not the kind of story you want to hear. You want to hear made-up horror stories. I don’t know anyone with one of those stories.”

Another commenter added that she was saving $300 a month under her Obamacare plan. Yet another asked: “(N)ow my daughter, diagnosed with MS at age 22, can have insurance. What do you plan to do with her?”

It would not be an exaggeration to say Rodgers was barraged with these sorts of stories.

“My whole family now has coverage,” one person wrote. “The ACA is the cause for this. I work in health care, I have seen the increase in covered patients first hand.” 

Another wrote, “I work for Cancer Care Northwest. We actually have more patients with insurance and fewer having to choose treatment over bankruptcy. Cathy, I’m a die-hard conservative and I’m asking you to stop just slamming Obamacare. Fix it, change it or come up with a better idea!”

And another: “I have 3 cousins I am immediately aware of that can now buy insurance whereas they previously couldn’t. At my company, we have seen a very low increase of 4 percent per year in premiums per employee for the last 3 years, where the prior increased premiums ran 8-20 percent per year. No one has had to change plans or doctors. It’s all good.”

These are, of course, anecdotal, unverified stories. Just like the tale of Bette in Spokane. And yet one suspects that none of them will be mentioned in Rodgers’ next nationally televised speech.

Rodgers helped peddle an Obamacare meme on Twitter this week, titled “5 Years of Broken Promises” and offered five stories of individuals whose plans were canceled. Each is identified by a first name and last initial, and each presents a “story” with more holes than a wheel of Emmenthaler. For a group with the resources and dedication on this issue that the House GOP has shown, what’s striking about these stories is how flimsy they are. They’re practically begging for horror stories, and these are the most horrific?

The first story regards Stewart D. from Cottonwood, Calif., who said his family’s policy was canceled and he’s had to purchase another policy costing twice as much. This has happened to some people – people whose previous coverage does not meet improved standards under Obamacare. Often, the details about the plans and options available make these stories sound a lot less horrific, but maybe this one is exactly as advertised. Stewart D. says it has put a “serious hurt” on his budget.

That’s the strongest example. Here’s another one, from Sandra P. of Augusta, Ga: “I am a 62-year-old widow and only make $8.79 an hour. I have lost my insurance coverage and cannot afford to pay for this.”

How little would you have to know about Obamacare to not see the holes in that? Just how little does the GOP think people know to peddle this as a real-life example, and not a grotesque exaggeration of a fundamental misunderstanding?

Very little. Rodgers asked for stories this week, and she got an earful. Let’s not hold our breath waiting for the hashtag campaign.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.