Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hewitt v. PolitiFact: Two facts clearly favor Hewitt

Over the past week, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt claimed on Sunday the health insurance industry has entered a "death spiral," PolitiFact rated Hewitt's claim "False" and Hewitt had PolitiFact Executive Director Aaron Sharockman on his radio show for an hour long interview (transcript here).

Aside from the central dispute over the "death spiral," where PolitiFact's work arguably commits a bifurcation fallacy, we have identified two areas where Hewitt has the right of the argument. PolitiFact has published (and superficially defended) false statements in both areas.

The New York Times article

PunditFact (PolitiFact):
Hewitt referred to a New York Times article that quotes the president of Aetna saying that in many places people will lose health care insurance.

We couldn’t find that article, but a simple remark on how premiums are rising and insurers are leaving the marketplace is not enough evidence to meet the actuarial definition of a death spiral.
We found the article in just a few minutes (it was dead easy; see hit No. 5). Two quotations from it will show it matches the content, other than the term "president," that Hewitt described on his Sunday television appearance.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini has pronounced the ACA's health insurance markets in a "death spiral."

This story has been corrected to show that consumers have reduced options, not that some consumers have no health care options.
So we have the "death spiral" comment from the head of AETNA that Hewitt described, as well as the dire statement that some people have no options, though that part was reported in error in the AP story that appeared in the Times.

During his radio interview, Sharockman tried to pin on Hewitt PolitiFact's failure to find the described Times story and flatly said the article was not in the Times:
AS: You said the president of Aetna. It’s the chairman and CEO, and it was not in the New York Times, as you also know. It was originally probably in the Wall Street Journal.
The article was in The New York Times, and we have informed PolitiFact writer Allison Graves (via Twitter) and Sharockman (via email).

We expect ethical journalists to make appropriate corrections.

Where does the CBO stand on the "death spiral"?

The mainstream media widely interpreted the CBO report addressing President Trump's health care proposal as a judgment the ACA has not entered a "death spiral."

PolitiFact did likewise in its fact check of Hewitt:
CBO, independent analysis: No death spiral
Others have also concluded that the Affordable Care Act is not in a death spiral. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, as part of its recent analysis of the GOP legislation, described the Affordable Care Act as stable.
Though PolitiFact did not link to the CBO report in its fact check (contrary to PolitiFact's statement of standards), we believe the claim traces to this CBO report, which contains this assessment (bold emphasis added):

Stability of the Health Insurance Market

Decisions about offering and purchasing health insurance depend on the stability of the health insurance market—that is, on having insurers participating in most areas of the country and on the likelihood of premiums’ not rising in an unsustainable spiral. The market for insurance purchased individually (that is, nongroup coverage) would be unstable, for example, if the people who wanted to buy coverage at any offered price would have average health care expenditures so high that offering the insurance would be unprofitable. In CBO and JCT’s assessment, however, the nongroup market would probably be stable in most areas under either current law or the legislation.
Note the CBO report does not call the insurance market "stable" under the ACA. Instead it projects that insurance markets will probably remain stable in most areas. Assuming PolitiFact has no better support from the CBO than the portion we have quoted, we find PolitiFact's version a perversion of the original. The CBO statement leaves open the possibility of a death spiral.

Sharockman stood behind the fact check's apparent spin during his appearance on the Hugh Hewitt Show:
AS: Hugh, you’re misleading the listeners.

HH: …is that we have gone from 7…

AS: You’re misleading the listeners. The same CBO report that you’re quoting said that the markets are stable whether it’s the AHCA…
Again, unless Sharockman has some version of a CBO report different from what we have found, we judge that Sharockman and PolitiFact are misleading people about the content of the report.

We used email to point out the discrepancy to Sharockman and asked him to provide support for his and PolitiFact's interpretation of the CBO report.

We will update this article if we receive a response from Sharockman that includes such evidence.

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