UPDATED x4: MI State Senator spews nonsense, Detroit News lets him cover it up

One week ago I posted en entry titled "Color me shocked: Michigan GOP State Senator spewing nonsense", which documented an appallingly erroneous Op-Ed by Republican State Senator Patrick Colbeck riddled with basic mathematical errors about the Affordable Care Act.

Among the many factual errors included in Colbeck's essay were such gems as:

  • He claimed that the ACA is costing $1.35 trillion per year. It's actually priced at less than 1/10th that price ($120 billion per year).
  • He claimed that the ACA has insured an additional 19 million people, which is oddly generous as compared with my own estimate of 14 million or even the Obama administration's estimate of 16.1 million.
  • He claimed that the ACA is "still leaving 36 million people" without insurance, while failing to acknowledge that 4 million of those are stuck in the Medicaid Gap created by Republican-run states, while another 6.3 million are undocumented immigrants who aren't legally eligible for coverage under the law.
  • He claimed that the ACA is costing over $71,000 per enrollee per year, when the actual number is closer to $5,000 per person.
  • He claimed that a "high quality policy" can be purchased on the non-ACA market for $6,000/year, which may or may not be true depending on the person.
  • He claimed that "159 organizations" which stand "between a patient and a doctor" were created by the ACA, which is utter nonsense.
  • He claimed that the state of Washington launched a program which magically cut both costs and hospitalization rates in half, without citing any source or providing any information about what this mystery program might be.

So, in my piece I carefully debunked all of these lies (or misstatements, assuming he was just ignorant). My response garnered quite a few retweets and a generally positive response...so positive that several people suggested that I write up a simplified version and submit it to the Detroit News Op-Ed page myself as a rebuttal.


I submitted a shortened version of my blog entry from that morning to James David Dickson, the Detroit News Op-Ed Editor, at 9:30pm on April 27th.

I never heard back from the News and was going to dismiss this as just another in a long line of Republican politicians spewing nonsense about the ACA (thus the title).

Until tonight.

Tonight, over at Daily Kos, a diarist going by the name "Inflection" posted this diary:

GOP Legislator and Detroit News take a trip to the Memory Hole

Below the cut (where I've posted some screen grabs) are two versions of an anti-Obamacare rant by one of our state "legislators" here in Michigan that was published as an op-ed in the Detroit News.

...Thus, the News either made or let Rep. Colbeck make a major overhaul of the article; after the order of magnitude drop made the Obamacare costs look better compared to the kind of plan a healthy young private citizen could get, he also lost 5 million enrollees to make the denominator smaller, and changed his comparison to a cheap catastrophic plan. After doing all this, they scrubbed the comments page and failed to note any corrections or edits to the article.

Here's the screen grab of the original (thanks to Inflection for this; I quoted chunks of the original in my own earlier post but it's better to have the image evidence as well):

It's hard to read and only includes the first half of the article, but you can clearly see the "$1.35 trillion", "19 million", "$71,052/additional enrollee", "$6,000/year" and "159 organization" references.

Next, here's the current version. Inflection included his/her own screen grab with annotations calling out many changes; I'm using my own since it's higher resolution and includes more of the current version of the article; plus, I include a couple of additional notes which Inflection wasn't even aware of:

In addition, as Inflection notes over at dKos, there's not so much as a "correction" line anywhere on the page, at the top, bottom or anywhere else.

Now, since the Detroit News decided to scrub all of the comments for Colbeck's original version, I have no idea how many of these corrections were pointed out by other people. Perhaps none of them were. Perhaps all of them were. It's conceivable that my own blog entry--and/or my email to Mr. Dickson--had nothing to do with these changes; perhaps others pointed them out before anyone at the News ever saw my own piece or email.

(Of course, that has nothing to do with how outrageously flawed the original was or with the fact that they made the corrections without acknowledging the changes or that they scrubbed the comments or with the fact that some of the "corrections" are still way off).

HOWEVER, there's one change they made which makes me pretty damned certain that it was in direct response to my blog entry/email: The "14 million" figure.

To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only ACA-specific news source who's been stating the net gain in insured Americans since the ACA was launched as being 14 million. Most other sources I've seen have either been using the "16.4 million since 2010" figure that the Obama Administration has been touting or the older estimates ranging between 10-12 million depending on the various national surveys/studies released throughout last fall/winter. Gallup, meanwhile, gives the number as 9.7 million since 2010 (the discrepancy is due to the huge time difference...the uninsured shot up from 16.3% to 18% between 2010 and 2013, before dropping dramatically the moment the exchanges launched, which is where my 14 million estimate comes from). Combine that with the population increase over the past 5 years and the range of numbers becomes more understandable.

In any event, the fact remains that to the best of my knowledge, no one other than myself has been using "14 million" as the net increase in the insured via the ACA, which means it's very, VERY likely that the Detroit News read my blog entry and/or my Op-Ed submission and cherry-picked which of their own numbers to "correct".

  • The 14M figure was a no-brainer, since it makes the ACA look worse from their (pardon me, "Colbeck's") POV.
  • The 10 year correction had to be done because it was such a stupid thing to claim in the first place (the entire federal budget is less than $4 trillion, for heaven's sake)
  • The $9,642 is based on a still utterly flawed division of $135 billion by 14 million. The $135 billion is actually only $121 billion according to the CBO, and even then, there's a lot of other factors involved, which is why Glenn Kessler, fact checker for the Washington Post, concluded that the actual cost per enrollee is only around $5,000 apiece at most.
  • The "41 million still uninsured" figure came from, again, a simplistic assumption that if they thought 36M were still uninsured and they overestimated the net gain in the insured by 5M, they could simply tack those 5M onto the 36M and call it 41M even. 41M / 320M would be 12.8%. Since Gallup recently concluded that the uninsured rate among adults is below 12%, and since among children it's no more than 8% at most, the 41M figure is pretty obviously way off base.
  • The change from "comparable coverage for $6K" to "catastrophic coverage for $2K" is incredibly dishonest and wouldn't have even been necessary, since $6,000 is still pretty good vs. $9,642...except that as I said, the actual cost per ACA enrollee is more like $5,000.
  • After that, they seemed to leave the rest alone. The "159 organizations" is never corrected (or flat-out removed, as it should be, because it's nonsense), and it still gives absolutely no source or information about the mysterious "half the price!!" program in Washington State.

UPDATE 3:03 am : Now, don't get me wrong: I know that corrections don't generally include a personal shout-out to the person who provided it (especially if there was more than one person who noted the error), and I know that errors (and corrections) occasionally don't include an acknowledgement at all, especially if they were minor and/or corrected shortly after the original post. I'm sure I've missed a few myself from time to time.

HOWEVER, this Op-Ed was riddled with errors, wasn't corrected until 5 days after being posted, no recognition of any changes whatsoever was ever provided and some of the errors were left as is or only partially corrected. This would all be highly disturbing even if it had no connection to me personally.

The Detroit News (and/or Sen. Colbeck) may or may not owe me a personal apology for these underhanded tactics, but they sure as hell owe their readership one.


UPDATED x2 8:27am, 5/4/15: Sen. Colbeck has already responded to me via Twitter, and his response is far more telling than I suspect he intended:

@charles_gaba @detroitnews When I make a mistake, I correct it. Truth matters. Did not change core assertion of article.

— Patrick Colbeck (@pjcolbeck) May 4, 2015

Oh, wow. Where to begin with this? I realize Twitter only allows 140 characters & isn't conducive to lengthy responses, but...

  • Again, this is a sitting state Senator, posting an Op-Ed piece in a major metropolitan/state-wide newspaper, yet he failed to do even the most basic math to check his own work prior to submitting it for publication.
  • He still fails to correct several of his assertions, and altered others which hadn't been called into question in the first place in order to make them better fit his new narrative.
  • He still fails to provide any source or context for his "159 organizations" or "WA pilot program" claims.
  • He fails to explain why he didn't acknowledge any of the changes even via a simple "Updated w/corrections" note at the beginning/end.
  • This also still fails to explain why the (at least) 61 comments were wiped out from the original version.
  • Finally, of course, Sen. Colbeck's claim that the changes "don't change the core assertion" of the article is laughable. The "1 year vs. 10 years" fix alone completely changes the economics of the ACA (and again, even that was still overstating the cost by at least 12%).

However, let's forget about Colbeck himself for a moment. What does this say about the Detroit News Op-Ed/Editorial policies?

  • They apparently allow guest Op-Ed writers to publish whatever the hell they feel like without any editorial control whatsoever.
  • Alternately, if they do check what's published first, they do a piss-poor job of checking it first.
  • They then apparently allow Op-Ed writers to go back in 5 days later and change what they published without anyone having to approve of the changes.
  • They also apparently give Op-Ed writers the ability to just wipe out comments (or, alternately, they wipe out the comments themselves whenever they feel like it).

Sen. Colbeck's response does answer one question: Yes, the changes were made by him/with his approval. However, all that means is that he's just as culpable as the News is in both the changes and the lack of transparancy about them.

UPDATE x3: I'm not sure, but I think this post has generated more traffic than I've seen since the end of open enrollment in February.

A big shout-out to Eclectablog for posting his own entry to help expose this story.

Another thank you to Inflection for his/her diary bringing the edits to my attention in the first place.

Also, thanks to ItsSimpleSimon for this link to the official Michigan Senate Journal, where Colbeck entered essentially the exact same (original) pile of bull puckey into the official legislative record...back on March 26th!

Meanwhile, as of 5:15pm, the current Detroit News version still has no indication that anything has been changed.

(Title changed to better reflect the full story)

UPDATE x4: Well, there you go. It only took 10 full days and a massive social media blitz to get the Detroit News to finally post a correction.

As "Inflection" notes, that's very cute; they added a correction which only serves to emphasize Colbeck's (modified and still mostly wrong) claims:

They still fail to acknowledge how absurdly wrong the original version was, the 10-year estimated cost is still overstated by $150 billion, the 41 million figure is still overstated by about 5 milllion, the per-enrollee cost is still overstated by 93%, and they still do an apples-to-oranges comparison by comparing a "catastrophic" policy against an actual, comprehensive healthcare policy. They also still fail to explain the BS "159 organizations" or the mysterious Washington program that supposedly cuts costs in half.

On the other hand, they do at least finally admit that at least 5 major claims (out of fewer than 600 words total) were bald-faced lies (er, make that, "mistakes"). Apparently that's how low the bar has been lowered for journalistic standards at the Detroit News.