Nice Work at the AP

The administration stretches a health reform stat

It’s no secret the president and his surrogates are trying mightily to keep their sales job for health reform on track—even if that means handing out misleading data. Campaign Desk was pleased to see the AP’s Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar pick up on a point we had made a few days earlier. In a critique of a NewsHour story that left a lot of health care misconceptions on the table, we noted that health reporter Betty Ann Bowser had passed along this stat from the shop of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: “as many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have preexisting conditions and could be rejected for coverage if the law is repealed.”

Most of those people have coverage under employer-sponsored health insurance, and wouldn’t be affected at all if the law is repealed. Preexisting conditions don’t matter with that kind of coverage. Everyone in an employer group is usually in. It’s a different story with people in the individual market, where fewer than 20 million people get their insurance. But the NewsHour didn’t go there.

Zaldivar, whose readers number in the millions, did—which makes his piece so important. Setting the record straight is always good, especially if it involves all the president’s men (and women). He pointed out that those with employer coverage are already protected when they change jobs or health plans. An old law limits waiting periods for preexisting conditions, and new employers must give credit if someone had coverage under a previous plan, and that credit often eliminates any waiting period.

Zaldivar looked closely at the statistic Sebelius was peddling. “The new estimate by the Health and Human Services Department is more than twice as high as a figure that supporters of the law were using last year. It just might need an asterisk,” he told readers. That’s a polite way of putting it. When Zaldivar looked at the different estimates of how many people might be rejected, he found that the administration had at one time projected a range of 50 to 129 million people with preexisting conditions that might cause an insurer to say “no.” The lower number was based on a count of people with health problems that would qualify them for state high-risk pools. The higher end included people with other conditions, like asthma, which could mean insurers would charge higher premiums or exclude coverage for the particular health problem in question.

Was the administration using the higher number for drama? The worst case is usually more compelling, no? We’re glad the AP was on this one.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,