PolitiFact Ohio practices opinion journalism under the guise of fact-checking. They often get things wrong — particularly, we’ve noticed, in their coverage of U.S. senate candidates Sherrod Brown (Democrat) and Josh Mandel (Republican). So we bring you PolitiFact or Fiction, a semi-regular review of pronouncements issued by PolitiFact Ohio, a blog run by staff at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and supported by Politifact.com.
By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
In May 2011, PolitiFact Ohio checked U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s claim that 87 percent of private health insurance policies cover abortion and found it “mostly true.”
The question is why they even bothered. The number wasn’t in dispute. It’s used by people on both sides of the issue. It didn’t shine any light on the underlying issue — a bill moving through Congress to eliminate the tax deductibility of health insurance that covered abortion.
The issue was one to be decided on principle, whether it’s good or bad to pass such a law — regardless of how many people are affected.
So why drill down into the irrelevant 87 percent number? In doing so, PolitiFact artificially bumps up what Stephen Colbert might call Brown’s “truthiness.” You might as well fact-check a greeting of the salutation “good morning.”
PolitiFact is supposed to be about fact-checking — it says so right in the name — but it frequently weighs matters of principle or facts that are irrelevant. The results show the organization’s liberal bias.
Don’t take just my word for it. Last year, Eric Ostermeier, a professor at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, examined “more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011,” finding “that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’ over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent).”
As well, “PolitiFact assigns ‘Pants on Fire’ or ‘False’ ratings to 39 percent of Republican statements compared to just 12 percent of Democrats since January 2010,” he found.
One way to get those results is to check uncontroversial trivia like Brown’s “87 percent,” find the fact in a study and declare Brown truthful.
A funny thing about this 87 percent, though, is it’s not accurate after all. The study’s authors concede that it’s not.
We’re not the only ones who don’t care what percentage of health insurance policies cover abortion — almost nobody else does, either. There have been only two studies of the question, and they produced vastly different results.
A 2003 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 46 percent of insured workers had abortion coverage.
The 87 percent figure comes from a study by the Guttmacher Institute, named for Alan Guttmacher, the former vice president of the American Eugenics Society and second president of Planned Parenthood.
Guttmacher researchers asked medical directors of large insurance companies whether their “typical” plan covered “medically necessary or appropriate abortions,” finding that 87 percent of typical policies included such coverage.
Guttmacher says the actual answer is somewhere in between the two studies. While the studies provide evidence of fairly widespread coverage for medically necessary abortions, elective abortions are another matter.
A 2003 Guttmacher study found that only 13 percent of abortions were directly billed to insurance providers, meaning it’s still largely a cash business. The authors point out that the study includes those who are uninsured and doesn’t factor in women seeking reimbursements on their own, but those adjustments wouldn’t turn a small number into a big one.
One could interpret the conflicting data to conclude that a majority of plans include coverage, as Guttmacher does.
One could put greater weight on the low reimbursement rate and figure that maybe a quarter or a third of policies cover elective abortions. But there’s no way to review the facts and reasonably assert that it’s a fact that 87 percent of policies cover abortion, as PolitiFact Ohio does.
One problem is that PolitiFact doesn’t seem to know what an insurance policy is.
PolitiFact reasons that “the studies asked different questions, helping explain the disparity in results. While Guttmacher reported on policies, Kaiser counts covered workers. Membership in plans would not be evenly distributed.”
This is exactly wrong. Policies are individual contracts with covered workers, not products of varying popularity sitting on a shelf. The percentages should be identical.
And again: “A study by the Kaiser Foundation yielded a much lower figure for coverage, but it is a percentage of covered workers, not plans.”
In fact, the discrepancy exists, because Guttmacher took the route of asking large insurers with 100,000-plus enrollees about a “typical” plan, and allowed those answers to paper over any variety in the population.
Roughly, it means that five out of six medical directors say their health networks provide medically necessary abortion, and not much more.
Don’t blame Brown for PolitiFact’s bogus review. Though Brown benefits regularly from PolitiFact’s biased ratings, he is a U.S. senator who is more concerned with passing legislation than vetting decade-old statistics.
Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with one of his staff members pulling a number from a news article and throwing it into a news release. It happens every day; Washington, D.C., is littered with bad statistics.
But how can the so-called fact-checkers at PolitiFact ignore the facts? And how can they present the sum of their efforts as an honest “batting average” when they’re pitching underhand to one team?
The fact-checkers may come to a different opinion, but that’s all it is.
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