Right-Wing Media Promote Inadequate Health Plans By Bashing Minimum Benefit Requirements

Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

Right-wing media are ignoring the dangers of underinsurance in their attacks on the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) requirement that new insurance plans offer at least a minimum level of coverage, including ten "essential health benefits."

Research has shown that medical costs contribute to a high percentage of bankruptcies filed in the U.S, and a 2007 study from Harvard University found that more than three-quarters of people with medical debt had health insurance. Beginning January 1, 2014, the ACA will begin to tamp down on the type of "swiss cheese" coverage that can leave consumers facing catastrophic health costs by requiring that all health plans on the new health care exchanges cover ten "essential health benefits" that will provide consumers with a basic level of coverage for things like hospitalization, prescription drugs, mental health services, and preventative care.

Right-wing media are attacking this shift toward providing an improved health insurance product and insisting that insufficient insurance is not a problem. An October 30 Wall Street Journal editorial blasted the change as "command-and-control regulation" and said "Democrats are openly instructing adults that they don't know what's best for their own good." In his own October 30 column, the Journal's deputy editorial page editor, Daniel Henninger, wrote called the push for increased consumer protection "progressive coercion," emblematic of "politics by cramdown."

During the October 31 Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy and Fox Business host Stuart Varney obscured the dangers of "cut-rate" insurance plans to characterize the administration's claim that the insufficient levels of coverage in some existing plans led insurers to tell policyholders that they had to change their coverage as "flat-out outrageous" -- even though a study published in Health Affairs found that, in 2010, more than half of Americans who purchased their own insurance had plans that fell short of ACA standards. Later in the show, Doocy and Fox Business host John Stossel bashed the health care law's requirements for new insurance policies:

DOOCY: Now we're going to have to buy insurance that is up to the government's standard even though maybe we would rather just save money.

STOSSEL: We chose those policies and yet the president says you didn't choose well, I need to choose for you.

These attacks all ignore the consequences of being underinsured, which carry many of the same risks as having no insurance at all. According to Kaiser Health News, some uninsured people "avoid going to the doctor or getting prescriptions filled because they can't afford it," and noted that others "end up with medical debt and other severe financial problems." The April Commonwealth Fund study found that half of the underinsured "said they had not received needed care because of cost" and explained that 55 percent of underinsured Americans "reported medical bill problems are accrued medical debt" -- more than twice the rate of those with adequate insurance coverage.

Huffington Post health care reporter Jeffrey Young defined the underinsured as those with health insurance plans that "offered too little coverage and exposed them to high out-of-pocket costs." He highlighted an April study by the Commonwealth Fund that found 30 million people, or 16 percent of the U.S. population were underinsured in 2012. The study also found that lower-income Americans were underinsured at higher rates. The Commonwealth Fund study also stated that 85 percent of those who were underinsured could be eligible for coverage under the ACA's Medicaid expansion or qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance plans on the exchanges, which have a certain standard of coverage, and so "[m]ore people insured and better-quality coverage will likely lead to less medical cost-fueled debt and fewer cost-related access problems."

According to a September 2011 study by the Commonwealth Fund, once fully implemented, the Affordable Care Act could reduce the number of underinsured adults by 70 percent.

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