Saturday, October 25th, 2014

New Koch ad uses Louisiana veteran's health care experience against Mary Landrieu

Americans for Prosperity aired this ad featuring a Marine Corps Reserve veteran who blamed Obamacare and Sen. Mary Landrieu for losing his health care.

Another anti-Obamacare ad from Americans for Prosperity recently hit the airwaves in Louisiana, one of a handful of states where libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch are helping Republicans in their fight for the Senate.

Like previous ads featuring a leukemia patient and a woman with lupus, the new 30-second commercial spotlights a troubling first-person account, this time from Chris Schiff, a veteran who said he lost his insurance due to the Affordable Care Act.

"I did two tours in Iraq," Schiff said. "Because of my service, I was able to get a health care plan that worked for me. So I get a letter from my insurance company that said my insurance costs were going way up because of Obamacare. And oh, by the way, you should be happy about it. (Democratic Sen.) Mary Landrieu said that Obamacare is going to make things better. Better? Not for people like me."

Landrieu, who faces a tough re-election bid against a handful of Republican hopefuls, has supported the Affordable Care Act, but she also has offered changes that would allow canceled policies to continue. Republicans have put Obamacare front and center in the race to oust her.

Much like other testimonial ads we’ve seen from Americans for Prosperity — a group funded by the Koch brothers — this one is hard to put on the Truth-O-Meter. While many people saw changes in their insurance policies because of the Affordable Care Act, this ad leaves viewers believing that the law specifically affected the health benefits of veterans.

Let’s take a closer look.  

"I did two tours in Iraq."

Schiff did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, and AFP didn’t provide details on his service dates, only that he served "served two deployments in Iraq as a Marine Corps Reserve sergeant."

We found a 2005 news story from the Daily World, a newspaper in Opelousas, La., that noted the return of then-L. Cpl. Schiff from one of his deployments "after serving in the 1st Marine Division infantry for the past seven months."

"Schiff completed more than 125 combat missions, arrested numerous insurgents, uncovered many weapons caches and performed recon and surveillance missions and personal security detail convoys for high-level personnel," according to the Daily World.

Another story from Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, a military-run media operation, tracked Sgt. Schiff conducting joint weapons training in Morocco in 2010.

We don’t know the exact dates of his service or when he left the Marine Corps Reserve, but it is clear he served overseas.

"Because of my service, I was able to get a health care plan that worked for me."

This statement might lead a viewer to believe that Schiff was enrolled in a plan specifically for veterans. But that is not the case.

Once he left active duty, Schiff, 31, was not eligible for Tricare, the military’s free medical benefits for current service members and their families. Tricare is also available to individuals who retire after 20 years or who are medically retired after sustaining injuries while serving.

Members of the Marine Corps Reserve are only eligible for Tricare when they are activated. When they are demobilized, they can purchase coverage through Tricare Reserve Select, which  more closely resembles private health insurance.

Reservists can qualify for Tricare as retirees if they have especially long, active careers, but it does not appear that Schiff met the criteria. Service members who leave the military before reaching retirement do not receive health benefits after discharge.

Instead, Schiff purchased coverage through USAA, the United Services Automobile Association, AFP said.

The military does not own or operate USAA, but it has a longstanding relationship with servicemembers and veterans. The Fortune 500 company assists current and former service men and women and their families in financial matters like banking, retirement planning and — most importantly for this fact-check — insurance coverage.

However, USAA does not provide health insurance directly. Instead, it helps its members find health insurance on its own health insurance marketplace. USAA tapped Assurant Health, an insurance company, to provide health plans to interested members.

Here’s an important fact: The plans provided on USAA’s health insurance marketplace are no different than plans available to non-USAA members (or non-veterans of any kind) on the individual market, said Assurant spokeswoman Mary Hinderliter in an interview.

Additionally, a USAA spokeswoman told PolitiFact that "there are no specific discounts (or) benefits available to USAA members for obtaining the Assurant product through USAA."

So while USAA served a useful role as middleman connecting Schiff to a health insurance plan, the coverage he ultimately purchased was not specific to veterans and could have been purchased in the individual market by any Louisianian without USAA assistance.

"So I get a letter from my insurance company that said my insurance costs were going way up because of ObamaCare."

If you didn’t know what we just told you about Schiff’s insurance, it might be reasonable to think that Obamacare has increased the health insurance of veterans.

In reality, servicemembers and veterans enrolled in Tricare will not see any changes to their benefits — the Affordable Care Act explicitly exempted Tricare.

Still, in Schiff’s case, Assurant Health did notify Louisianians that certain policies sold on the individual market were discontinued because they did not meet the minimum standards of coverage outlined in the health care law. This included the plan Schiff purchased.

Hinderliter said customers were offered opportunities to purchase new plans through Assurant that complied with the law; they could also use an insurance agent or the federal online health insurance marketplace. The company did not take up President Barack Obama’s offer to temporarily extend certain plans in Louisiana that did not meet the law’s coverage guidelines.

AFP spokesman Levi Russell said Schiff’s new option was much more expensive.

"Chris received a letter from the insurer informing him his plan had been canceled due to Obamacare and that the replacement plan would carry much higher premiums — $1,488 higher each year with the same high individual deductible of $3,500."

Schiff told Fox News he is now paying almost $300 a month for insurance. If he’s paying $1,488 more a year ($124 more a month) that means his old plan cost about $176 each month. Schiff did not provide Fox News many more details.

Hinderliter said Assurant offered plans through USAA’s marketplace with varying deductibles and co-pays, and couldn’t speak to the specific policy Schiff purchased.

So we don’t know much about his insurance options. Did his previous plan have annual or lifetime caps, which Obama’s health law now prohibits? What was the co-pay for a doctor’s visit? For an ER visit? Did it cover prescriptions and preventative care, which is required by the law?

The Affordable Care Act also limits out-of-pocket expenses at $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family to protect people from large medical bills in a catastrophe or if they contract an illness that requires costly care. Did his old plan do the same?

We also don’t know his salary or family situation to determine if he would have been eligible for Medicaid (had Louisiana adopted the expansion) or if he qualified for subsidies through Obamacare to purchase coverage at a discount on the federal marketplace.

Russell only said that, "Even the cheapest plan offered on the Obamacare exchange is more expensive than his old plan, has a higher deductible, and doesn’t provide any coverage at all for vision or dental." However, we don’t have the details to prove that.

The bottom line

Schiff appears to be among the millions of individuals who received notices that their existing policies were canceled due to the Affordable Care Act, despite Democrats promising those who liked their insurance could keep their plans. Though comparatively few people faced this fate, those who did experienced at best a logistical hassle and at worst a hit to the pocketbook.

Still, without more information we can’t adequately compare Schiff’s previous and current plan, or other options available to him, to evaluate the financial impact.

It’s also hard to generalize. On one level, the AFP ads imply that these individuals’ Obamacare-related woes are in some way typical or common, but in each case, we have found them to have special circumstances that the ads gloss over or ignore.

In Schiff’s case, it’s important to remember that his example is not necessarily typical of the way Obamacare has affected veterans in particular. The ad strongly suggests that Schiff’s previous coverage came through military service, leaving the impression that the ACA has specifically left veterans high and dry. But Schiff’s old insurance policy was no different than the other private-market plans Assurant shut down because they didn’t meet Obamacare’s standards.

This may make for an effective anecdote, but the ad doesn’t include some important context and nuances. Louisiana voters beware.