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Boehner Inadvertently Exposes Sloppy Media Coverage of Obamacare Costs

Win MnNamee/Getty Images News

House Speaker John Boehner loves to tell stories about people getting a raw deal from Obamacare. This week, he decided to tell one about himself.

As you may recall, Obamacare treats members of Congress and their staff differently from other working Americans. Thanks to a provision added to the law by Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa, certain Capitol Hill workers can’t get insurance like other federal employees—i.e., via the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan. Instead, they must get coverage through one of the new Obamacare exchanges. For many, that means enrolling through the District of Columbia exchange.

This week, Boehner did just that. But, as his advisers later explained to media outlets, the Speaker had trouble. The website had technical problems, they said, and it took hours for Boehner to complete process. When he finally found a policy, he discovered it would cost a lot more. Politico got the full story, including a quote from Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “The Boehners are fortunate enough to be able to afford higher costs. But many Americans seeing their costs go up are not. It’s because of them that this law needs to go.” Soon it was all over social media.

But this story turns out to be a lot more complicated than either Boehner or the initial press accounts suggested. In fact, it’s an almost perfect example of how media coverage of Obamacare has failed to provide scrutiny, context or a sense of scale. For one thing, the circumstances of Boehner’s effort to use the D.C. website are a bit murky. Boehner had said he couldn’t get through to anybody on the Exchange’s help line. A spokesman for the exchange challenged that account, telling local NBC reporter Scott MacFarlane that a representative called Boehner’s office, only to be put on hold while patriotic music played in the background. After 35 minutes, according to this account, the representative hung up. It's impossible to know which account is correct. But if the D.C. Exchange version is right, then, as Steve Benen observes, “Boehner complained about how long the process took, but when he got a call to complete the enrollment process, the Speaker kept the exchange rep on hold for over half an hour.”

In any event, the real issue here is what Boehner will pay for insurance next year—and what, if anything, that says about the law as a whole. It’s true that Boehner’s 2014 premiums will be higher than his 2013 premiums have been. But that’s because of a set of relatively unique factors. They’re a bit hard to explain: Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has the full story if you want it. The simplistic version is that Boehner is paying more because he works on Capitol Hill and, at 64, he is relatively old. Unless you, too, work on Capitol Hill and are relatively old, his experience tells you very little about what will happen to you. Among other things, most large employers aren’t dropping coverage and sending their full-time workers into the exchanges. Only the U.S. Congress is—and that’s because of Grassley’s screwy amendment, which was, by all accounts, designed to embarrass the Democrats rather than become law.

Of course, the same factors that will mean higher premiums for older Capitol Hill workers will mean lower premiums for younger ones. An example of somebody benefitting from this dynamic is Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Taking into account the employer contribution, he’ll be paying $88 a month for his insurance next year. This year he has paid $186. His story appeared in a Wall Street Journal article about the different heath insurance experiences for different workers on Capitol Hill. The article, by Louise Radofsky, was balanced and fair. It was also the exception. There have been plenty of stories focusing on the older workers paying more, but almost none about younger workers paying less. You could make a case for focusing on the former more heavily: Hardship is bigger news than unexpected good luck. But by such a lopsided margin? That's hard to justify. 

And that pattern, unfortunately, is one we’ve seen over and over in this debate. People giving up their current plans get tons of attention. People getting new coverage don’t. Those Americans paying higher premiums next year have been all over the media. Those Americans paying lower premiums haven’t. There are exceptions. In the L.A. Times, Hiltzik had a terrific article Tuesday about Californians gaining coverage and saving money through California’s exchange. But those articles are hard to find.

Obamacare is a complicated story to tell, with good news and bad news and plenty in between. The media should cover all of it. But for the last few weeks it has mostly told one side of the story—the side that Boehner and his allies want you to hear.