Column: Governing by anecdote
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — It did not sound good for Sen. Pat Toomey.
“I’m a two-time breast cancer survivor and I’m facing the loss of insurance,” the Pennsylvania Republican declared Wednesday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the health care law. “Three years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” he added. “If my coverage is not in place before January 1, I will have to go without my medications. This may cause permanent disability, blindness, inability to walk, speech problems.”
Happily for Toomey, he was not describing his own maladies. He was reading emails sent by his constituents. But the senator has contracted a dangerous condition that can cause people to have impaired judgment. It’s called governing by anecdote — and it’s spreading.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., spoke about “Margaret from Manhattan, Kansas,” who had trouble getting through to a toll-free number for the health care exchange. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., relayed the situation of 39-year-old Emily, who has lupus. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was greatly agitated about one “Mr. Dougall” not getting a return call from the HealthCare.gov website.
“Let me talk about Mr. Hood, who lives close to me,” proposed Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Confronted with this anecdotal assault, Democrats defended Obamacare in kind, with Richard from Oregon, Karl and Bonnie from Wisconsin, Kathleen from Iowa, Gary from Montana and far too many more.
“While it’s always risky to legislate by anecdote, we’re telling stories here today,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had said Tuesday at the first of two Senate hearings on Obamacare. “And so, let me just add one to the mix, and that’s Betty Berger from Meriden, Connecticut. ... Betty’s story became one that can be repeated 2 million times every single year across this country.”
Republicans are right to hammer President Obama for his dishonest — and now debunked — claim that those who like their insurance plans can keep their coverage. Millions who buy their own health insurance will not have that option. The White House knew this during the health care debate and didn’t tell the truth.
But what Republicans are doing now is dishonest, too, because their constituents’ tales of woe, even if true, aren’t representative. Suppose the worst forecast proves to be true, and 12 million people cannot renew their coverage and must find new policies on the exchanges. In a country of 317 million people, that group would still be dwarfed by the number of people now able to get health insurance for the first time — and by the overwhelming majority of Americans who are largely unaffected by Obamacare.
Using props to make policy may be unreliable, but it’s apparently irresistible.
At a hearing of the Senate’s Health Committee on Tuesday, Scott devoted almost all of his questioning of Marilyn Tavenner, the Medicare chief, to one constituent, the aforementioned “Mr. Dougall,” who allegedly had personal information disclosed to others on HealthCare.gov.
“Mr. Dougall is now requesting that the personal information for all of his family be removed from HealthCare.gov, because he could not remove it himself,” Scott informed Tavenner. “Mr. Dougall has called on several occasions, but no one will call him back.”
“We have reached out to Mr. Dougall several times, and we will find him,” Tavenner offered.
“I’m happy to give you his phone numbers,” Scott proposed.
“I think we have them,” Tavenner told him.
“He doesn’t think so, actually,” the senator maintained, “because no one’s called him.”
“Well,” Tavenner said, “we have a disagreement there.”
Whatever horrible thing happened to poor Mr. Dougall, it’s hard to imagine it should be the top priority of the person struggling to salvage the Obamacare launch. Or perhaps distracting Tavenner from that work was Scott’s purpose.
After she takes care of Mr. Dougall, Tavenner can work on Mr. Hood’s rising premiums in North Carolina (mentioned by Burr) and Emily’s rising out-of-pocket costs in Tennessee (mentioned by Alexander).
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, at Wednesday’s Finance Committee hearing, was charged with addressing Steven from Topeka’s difficulty with the website (by Roberts).
Democrats felt compelled to defend Obamacare with happy anecdotes. Mary Lapis’ brother saved $700! Steven, from the Akron, Ohio, suburbs, can now buy insurance! Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told of the favorable website experiences of Greg in Bloomfield Hills and Crystal in Pontiac. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the finance panel, offered Gary from Billings, Allison from Wolf Point and Tony from Bozeman, all satisfied Obamacare customers. “I have no doubt,” he said, “that stories like these will keep coming in.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.