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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Reid Wrong on AFP Criticism

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrongly blamed the conservative group Americans for Prosperity for promoting a “false” story of a woman whose insurance premiums went up $700 per month. AFP didn’t feature that woman’s story in any of its ads.

In a floor speech on Feb. 26, Reid lambasted brothers David and Charles Koch, owners of the oil and manufacturing company Koch Industries and major funders of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) group founded by David Koch. AFP has been responsible for heavy advertising against the Affordable Care Act, and Reid made the hyperbolic claim that “all” of the “horror stories” being told about the ACA “are untrue.” He then cited two stories that he said were being promoted by Americans for Prosperity ads.

Reid, Feb. 26: Despite all that good news, there’s plenty of horror stories being told. All of them are untrue, but they’re being told all over America. The leukemia patient whose insurance policy was canceled, who would die without her medication. Mr. President, that’s an ad being paid for by two billionaire brothers. It’s absolutely false. Or the woman whose insurance policy went up $700 a month. Ads paid for around America by the multibillionaire Koch brothers. And the ad is false.

Reid went on to say that tales “made up from whole cloth” were being told in AFP ads and Republican stump speeches. But the two stories he cited are about real people, though the anecdotes may be misleading or not the full story.

The first example, about a leukemia patient whose individual insurance policy was canceled, was in an AFP ad. The second, however, about “the woman whose insurance policy went up $700 a month,” a story Reid said was in “ads paid for around America by the multibillionaire Koch brothers” was not, in fact, in an AFP ad. Instead, it was in the Republican response, given by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Reid’s spokesman told us that the senator decided to give his floor speech after reading a column by Paul Krugman of the New York Times that mentioned the story McMorris Rodgers had told of “Bette in Spokane.” A local newspaper found that the congresswoman exaggerated Bette’s plight.

McMorris Rodgers said Bette had sent her office a letter, saying “her premiums were going up nearly $700 a month.” The Spokesman-Review found the Bette in question, Bette Grenier, who said the $700 increase was one option given to her by her insurer, which was canceling the catastrophic plan she and her husband had purchased on the individual market. The increase would have been $648 per month, while another option would have been $500 more per month. Grenier also acknowledged that she could probably save more money on the state insurance exchange, but she told the newspaper, “I wouldn’t go on that Obama website at all.”

The Spokesman-Review reported that her catastrophic plan carried a $10,000 deductible but included four doctor visits without copays per year. Grenier told the paper the new options from her insurer had lower deductibles and broader coverage, but not the four free doctor visits. She and her husband had decided to go without insurance.

So, the brief anecdote in McMorris Rodger’s speech didn’t stand up to the facts. But the story wasn’t in an ad paid for by the Koch brothers, as Reid claimed.

 Not from ‘Whole Cloth’ or ‘Lies’

Reid went on to say that Republicans were making up stories out of “whole cloth” about individuals hurt by the Affordable Care Act. But neither of the anecdotes he cited were fabricated. In fact, we’re not aware of a story about the impact of the ACA that was completely made up. As with many political claims, the stories that are false or misleading have some basis in fact. (See our piece on an Arizona man with leukemia who initially told a local TV news reporter he’d have to pay $26,000 more to keep his doctor, but ended up keeping his doctor with a less expensive policy than he had before. His story was cited in an AFP ad.)

AFP did run an ad in Louisiana that used paid actors opening mail to find their insurance policies had been canceled. But even then, while the people weren’t real, the story of individual policies being canceled and replaced has been well documented.

On Feb. 26, Reid later backed down, a bit, from the “whole cloth” claim, saying, “I can’t say that every one of the Koch brothers’ ads are a lie, but I’ll say this: Mr. President, the vast, vast majority of them are.”

Still, the other example Reid had given — about a leukemia patient whose insurance policy was canceled — wasn’t “absolutely false,” as he had claimed. And certainly not “a lie.”

Glenn Kessler, our fact-checking colleague at the Washington Post, looked at the AFP ad featuring “Julie’s Story,” about the leukemia patient and gave it two out of a possible four Pinocchios.

In the ad, Julie Boonstra from Michigan says: “My insurance was canceled because of Obamacare. Now, the out-of-pocket costs are so high, it’s unaffordable. If I do not receive my medication, I will die.” Kessler wrote: “In order to properly compare the old [insurance] plan and the new plan, there needs to be fuller disclosure of the costs and out-of-pocket maximums before claims that the new plan is ‘unaffordable’ can be accepted at face value.”

Boonstra bought her insurance on the individual market and received a letter saying the policy would be canceled because it didn’t meet ACA requirements. But while Boonstra says her out-of-pocket costs are higher on a new plan offered by her insurer, her premiums were cut in half. She told the Detroit News that her new premium was $571 a month, down from $1,100.

As Kessler points out, that’s a $529 a month savings, or $6,348 a year, nearly as much as the out-of-pocket maximum under the ACA for individuals, which is $6,350 a year. Boonstra’s significant savings on her monthly premium may well make up for the higher out-of-pocket costs, which she says are “unaffordable” in the AFP ad.

So, “whole cloth,” “lie” and “absolutely false”? No, the AFP ad doesn’t reach that level of mendacity. “Not the full story” and “highly questionable” would be accurate descriptions. And Reid’s second example he attributed to the Koch brothers had nothing to do with them.

We have found fault with other AFP ads on the Affordable Care Act. This year, we said one ad about the ACA lacked context and offered a slanted view of the law’s impact. Another recycled an old, inaccurate claim about the law’s effect on premiums. But Reid went way too far in his criticism of the group.

— Lori Robertson

Update, March 11: The Detroit News reported on March 10 that Boonstra said her new policy was the Blue Cross Premier Gold health plan, which would save her at least $1,200 a year, even if her out-of-pocket expenses reached the plan’s maximum of $5,100. In light of that information, the Washington Post’s Kessler downgraded his rating to three out of four Pinocchios.