Pro Tip: If you are going to misrepresent a journalist’s own reporting, it’s probably not a good idea to do it on a webcast that she is moderating.
The conservative Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon is one of the architects of a lawsuit called King v. Burwell, which seeks to defund much of the Affordable Care Act by cutting off tax credits in many states that help people pay for their health insurance. On Thursday, Cannon participated in a web debate hosted by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, where he cited reporting by former NPR reporter Julie Rovner that, he claims, supports his understanding of the law.
Cannon’s interpretation of Rovner’s reporting, however, did not sit well with the moderator of the debate, former NPR reporter Julie Rovner. After Cannon attempted to use Rovner’s reporting in support of his argument, Rovner, who now reports on health policy for Kaiser Health News, produced a copy of the article Cannon cited and read it aloud to him in order to prove that it does not actually support his claims.
The Affordable Care Act gives states a choice to either set up health exchanges where their residents can buy subsidized health plans or allow the federal government to set up such an exchange for them. Cannon claims, however, that tax credits are only available in states that elected to set up their own exchange. Should a majority of the Supreme Court agree with him in King, 13 million or more people in states with federally-run exchanges could lose their health insurance.
During the web debate, Cannon cited several pieces of evidence which, he claims, support his view that Congress intended to make tax credits unavailable in states with federally-run exchanges, including a letter signed by 11 Democratic members of Congress which raised some concerns about how the Affordable Care Act was designed. Cannon also cited a report Rovner filed in 2010 as alleged evidence that this letter supports his reading of the Affordable Care Act. According to Cannon, “our own moderator Julie Rovner reported on those concerns, that House Democrats expressed with the [Affordable Care Act] that if the states didn’t bother to create an exchange their residents would have no way to benefit from the new law.”
In reality, the letter from the 11 Democrats (which can be read in its entirety here) is completely silent on the subject of whether tax credits are available in all 50 states under the bill that actually became law. Rather, it concerned an irrelevant dispute between the House and the Senate regarding whether the law would create one national exchange that covered people in every state, or 50 different state-based exchanges for 50 different states. The 11 Democrats preferred the former approach because they feared that the alternative “relies on states with indifferent state leadership that are unwilling or unable to administer and properly regulate a health insurance marketplace.” In essence, their concern was that the Senate bill potentially placed implementation of the Obamacare in the hands of state officials who did not support Obamacare, and that these state officials might operate exchanges in a way that thwarted the law’s goal of providing health care to millions of Americans.
Rovner’s report on this letter (which can be read in its entirety here) does include one line which, if read out of context, might support Cannon’s interpretation of the law. Her report closes by stating that the 11 Democrats “worry that because leaders in their state oppose the health bill, they won’t bother to create an exchange, leaving uninsured state residents with no way to benefit from the new law.” After Cannon finished his presentation, however, Rovner clarified what she did — and what she did not — report. “While that Texas letter did express concern about people not getting any benefits, they weren’t talking about subsidies,” Rovner explained.
Contrary to Cannon’s claim that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act hinge upon whether a state sets up its own exchange, Rovner noted that “in fact, the paragraph immediately prior” to the portion of her reporting that Cannon relies upon cuts against his argument. In that paragraph, Rovner quoted law professor and health policy expert Tim Jost saying that federally-run exchanges will provide a backstop against recalcitrant states — “if the state fails to do it, then the federal government is supposed to step in.” (The 11 Democrats agree with Jost’s reading of the Senate bill in their letter, which states that “[i]f the state does not set up the exchange, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services is required to set up an exchange for the state.”)
Nevertheless, Cannon continued to insist upon his own interpretation of Rovner’s report even after Rovner herself accused him of mischaracterizing her reporting. According to Cannon there is “no other plausible reading” of Rovner’s own reporting than the reading Cannon preferred.
(It should be noted that, even if Cannon’s reading of Rovner’s reporting were accurate, that still does not prove that the letter itself actually says what Cannon says that it says. To the contrary, it would only prove that Rovner might have misread the letter. Once again, the full text of the letter is available at this link so that our readers can independently verify what it says.)
Towards the end of the web debate, when Rovner and her co-panelists began to take questions from people who called into the webcast, a staffer from an advocacy group that supports the Affordable Care Act brought the dispute between Rovner and Cannon up again. Noting that Cannon has, in the past, retracted some of his claims about the Affordable Care Act after they were proven untrue, the caller asked whether Cannon would also retract his claim about Rovner’s reporting now that Rovner herself repudiated Cannon’s interpretation. “I know that, for some reason, you take your interpretation of her own work over hers,” the caller asked, “but I wonder if, with some reflection, you’ll decide that you should actually formally withdraw” the claim that Rovner’s reporting supports the plaintiffs’ view in King.
Cannon, however, was still unmoved. “If you can convince me that Julie’s interpretation of her own story is not contradicted by her own story, then I’ll be happy to make the change that you suggest.” Nevertheless, Cannon claimed, “no one has been able to do that, not even Julie herself.”
The Constitutional Accountability Center, whose press secretary, Doug Pennington, was the caller who challenged Cannon to retract his claim about Rovner’s reporting, posted audio of the exchanges between Rovner and Cannon. You can listen to it here:
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) is the lead author of the letter on behalf of the 11 House Democrats. Last November, ThinkProgress’s Igor Volsky emailed Doggett’s office to ask whether Cannon’s characterization of the letter is accurate. In response to Volsky’s request, Doggett replied that he and his ten colleagues “neither specifically mention nor contemplate the far-fetched argument now advanced by reform opponents that premium tax credits would only be available for state-based exchanges.”