A little press tale that blew out of the Kansas plains a couple weeks ago shows the value that media factcheckers can have in setting the record straight. It also shows how many opportunities there still are for newsrooms around the country to embrace the factchecking spirit—and for those who have the spirit to keep honing their approach.
The episode began when Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party Republican who represents the vast area of western Kansas and is no fan of the Affordable Care Act, came forth at a town hall meeting on April 14 in Salina with this pronouncement:
“It’s hard to get accurate information on anything. But the numbers we see today is that—as I understand them—we believe there are more people uninsured today in Kansas than there were before the president’s healthcare plan went into effect. And I thought the goal was to bring more people into insurance.”
A few days later, he made a very similar claim, with less hedging, at a town hall in Hays:
“There are more folks uninsured today in our district, we believe, than were uninsured before Obamacare kicked in.”
Really? There are plenty of hard questions to ask about the post-healthcare reform landscape, as we’ve written. But more people uninsured in mid-April than before exchange enrollment opened last fall and the individual mandate went into effect? Or, depending on your definition of when Obamacare “kicked in,” more uninsured than before 2010, when a provision allowing grown children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance went into effect? Even in Kansas, which has refused to expand Medicaid, and where a strong antigovernment streak might have discouraged people from signing up?
If the congressman’s implausible claims proved correct, that would be a good story in its own right. If not, they demand some debunking to set the record straight: The ACA is clearly going to be a major campaign theme this fall, and these were claims about one of its fundamental goals. So the statements warranted a check of the numbers and some close scrutiny—but, especially at the start, they got little of either in the local coverage.
The Salina Journal covered the town hall in its community, but not a word appeared about the uninsured. The story focused instead on Huelskamp’s comments about the budget, federal debt, and regulations; some of those assertions invited scrutiny, too, which they didn’t get. A few days later, on April 18, The Hays Daily News did spotlight Huelskamp’s ACA commentary in its town hall story. That article scores some points by presenting necessary counter-evidence to the congressman’s claim that a federal board is “rationing” healthcare—but unfortunately, it didn’t tackle Huelskamp’s “more folks uninsured” comment, which ran up high in the story.
The same day, some scrutiny of that claim did start to kick in, from national outlets. A reporter for The Huffington Post, working off video of the Salina town hall, checked out Huelskamp’s claim and found it unsubstantiated. A week later, Washington Post factchecker Glenn Kessler did some more digging and came to the same conclusion: “there [are] no up-to-date data, but the available figures concerning young adults and exchange enrollments provide good evidence that the law has led to a decrease in the number of uninsured.” Kessler gave Huelskamp four Pinocchios, his worst rating, for his use of “phony facts.” (Huelskamp’s office finally replied to Kessler after the column was posted. The most recent data they cited to support the congressman’s claim was from 2012.)
We still don’t have good survey numbers, but since Kessler’s column appeared, we have gotten a little more data. A recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services shows 57,013 Kansas residents selected a plan on the federally-run exchange during the first open-enrollment period. Charles Gaba, who runs ACASignups.net—which has emerged as an important authority on Obamacare enrollment figures—told CJR that factoring in new eligibility determinations for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, plus off-exchange enrollments, somewhere in the neighborhood of 120,000 Kansas might have new insurance policies since the fall. A big chunk, and perhaps a majority, of these people were likely previously insured—but the figures still point to a decrease in the numbers of uninsured on the order of tens of thousands of people since the fall, especially when you consider Kessler’s reporting that reports of canceled plans in the state turned out to be overblown. “Bottom line, Rep. Huelskamp appears to be utterly full of hooey,” Gaba said.