- - Wednesday, March 26, 2014


As the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, lumbers toward its rather flexible deadline Monday when individuals are supposed to sign up for the federal exchange, the public has become increasingly critical of the media’s coverage of the program.

In a recent Pew Institute poll of about 1,000 people, those surveyed said the media provided far poorer coverage of Obamacare than other stories. These critical reviews compared with much more positive results for the coverage of Crimea and the Malaysia Airlines disaster.

Despite my past criticism of the media coverage of Obamacare, journalists have done a slightly better job recently after basically serving as PR agents for the administration since the health coverage overhaul became law four years ago.

The coverage hardly matches the intensity of the botched rollout last year, but the media have reported on a variety of interesting developments in recent days.

As many of you know, here’s the drill: Insurance covers healthy people, temporarily injured or sick people, and seriously ill people. An estimated 40 percent of those who join Obamacare have to be between the ages of 18 and 34 — the healthiest age group — to pay for the older and sicker population. So far, according to a variety of news outlets, only 25 percent of the subscribers who have filled out the paperwork are from that coveted age group. That’s a huge gap that could have significant financial implications for the entire system.

The administration trumpeted reaching 5 million subscribers — a story picked up earlier this month by almost every news organization in the country. Here’s the trouble: According to the Congressional Budget Office, the target number was supposed to be 7 million, and that does not count those who may not actually buy the insurance, which may run as high as 15 percent. So let’s say Obamacare gets 6 million subscribers — minus 800,000 who don’t actually buy the insurance. That equals nearly 2 million fewer people than the CBO projection, with a group that tends to be older and less healthy than desired.

A recent report put out by the Kaiser Family Foundation highlighted some of the less obvious failures of Obamacare, particularly in those states that decided to create their own health care exchanges.

Some of the exchanges — mainly in Democratic-leaning blue states — have posted disastrous results. For example, Hawaii has seen the fewest number of people join in the country — under 5,000 as of March 1. Maryland and Massachusetts have websites that don’t work well and are unlikely to meet predicted targets. Wonkblog called Oregon’s website the nation’s worst because of a variety of technical and management glitches.

The American Medical Association, which supported the ACA, warned this month about a significant problem that may cost doctors a lot of money. If people choose a policy, they get 90 days to pay for the insurance. During those three months, people could run up significant bills but fail to pay for the insurance. If people choose not to buy the insurance, the insurers would pay the first 30 days and the doctors would pay the last 60 days — potentially a huge amount of money.

“Managing risk is typically a role for insurers, but the grace-period rule transfers two-thirds of that risk from the insurers to physicians and health care providers,” AMA President Ardis Dee Hoven said in a statement.

Although the media ignored many of the problems of Obamacare until the disastrous rollout, journalists have placed the program under a more critical eye. That’s what the public wants, particularly as the program moves toward May when insurers send out the actual policies. Ultimately, the number of applicants and the cost of the program will become much clearer then, a point when everyone should take a much closer look at what has gone right or — more probably — wrong.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.

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