Big claims, few details in anti-Obamacare ad alleging soaring costs

“This new plan is not affordable at all. My husband is working a lot more hours just to pay for these new increases….Obamacare is a vote that’s destroying the middle class.”

–Michigan resident Shannon Wendt, in a new Americans for Prosperity ad attacking Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)

This column had been updated with a Pinocchio rating

The Fact Checker can barely keep up with the torrent of ads attacking the Affordable Care Act from the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity. Just as we fact check one, and another, and another, and another, yet one more pops up.

This new ad is part of a reported $5-million buy in the competitive race for the open Senate seat in Michigan. As the Fact Checker has raised questions–and awarded Pinocchios–about some of the claims made in these ads, we find that the more recent ads have increasingly fewer details that are easy to check.

The Facts

Wendt, a mother of five, is a resident of Grand Rapids who sells jewelry on Esty. She first appeared in news reports around the New Year complaining about how difficult it was to get a plan on healthcare.gov, after her old Blue Cross Blue Shield plan was deemed not in compliance with the new law. She told interviewers that she spent hours trying to get answers and that at one point her children were declared ineligible for health insurance, in what she said a supervisor called “one of the worst cases of a glitch” he’d ever seen.

Previously, the family had opted for a plan that had low premiums but high out-of-pocket maximums, on the theory that the family would pay for minor scrapes and fevers out of pocket but be protected if a major accident happened. She said that the savings from the premiums was put in a fund to pay for everyday expenses.

“For us, that has made financial sense,” Wendt told Fox and Friends. “We’ve technically, according to Obama, been underinsured, but we’ve been that way on purpose. To us, it doesn’t feel underinsured. We feel it makes financial sense for us to have a higher deductible plan and just pay these little things out of pocket.”

As for costs under the new plan, her story was slightly different depending on the interview. She told Fox News that her old plan cost $260 a month with a $5,000 deductible, but the new plan will be $400 with a “high deductible. But she also told MLive.com that the premiums “will be close to what they paid last year for health insurance.” (The old plan, she told MLive.com, had $10,000 in out-of-pocket costs.)

So how did the plan now become so unaffordable that her husband Zach has to work extra hours? What is the new out-of-pocket maximum? We tried to reach Wendt, but her husband said she was unavailable.

Levi Russell, an AFP spokesman, said “the biggest change since those comments in January was that Shannon and her husband did more research, and realized that the available plans with costs comparable to their older plan that was canceled did not meet the healthcare needs of their family. The plan that does meet their needs is much more expensive. This is primarily due to the narrower provider networks on plans available on the exchange.”

Russell did not respond to a request for more details on the actual costs. We will update this column if we learn more from Wendt herself.

[Update, March 27: The Fact Checker reviewed a series of Facebook posts that Wendt wrote about her experience earlier in March, including some of the financial choices involved. A key issue is that the family qualified for Medicaid, but she was opposed for philosophical issues; she did not think a family making as much money as hers should qualify for Medicaid. She also thought the level of care was poor. So the family opted for a more expensive plan.

"While researching plans available on the exchange, Shannon and her husband realized it would mean enrolling their children in Michigan's CHIP plan, MIChild," Russell said. "They had MICHild for a short time years ago, and had a very bad experience with it.  In addition, after more research, they determined that going that route would mean losing access to their doctor, which was not an option for them."]

[Update, April 1: Wendt published an opinion article in which she provided additional details about her options and confirmed that she choose not to select a plan on healthcare.gov that could have saved her thousands of dollars a year. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org ran the numbers and found several options that "would provide better benefits at less cost than the plan" Wendt currently has.]

Wendt, incidentally, is a Republican precinct delegate for Michigan’s 2nd congressional district. In June, she signed a toughly worded petition warning GOP lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives not to accept expansion of Medicaid or the creation of a health care exchange permitted under the Affordable Care Act—or face a suspension of “all monetary and logistical support.” The petition sought to bind the Republicans to the themes of the party’s 2012 platform that declared the law was an “attack on our Constitution” and an “attempt to impose upon Americans a euro-style bureaucracy.”

“The Wendts’ political leanings do nothing to diminish their experience under Obamacare and I hope those beliefs will not be held against them,” Russell said. “The facts remain the same: they had a plan they liked, they were told they could keep it by President Obama, Rep. Peters and others and that plan was canceled. Now they are stuck with a plan they don’t want.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Fact Checker leaves it to readers to decide if Wendt’s active participation in GOP politics undermines her credibility as an Obamacare victim. But at this point, we do not have enough information to determine whether and how her insurance costs have become unaffordable, as claimed in the ad. So, for now, we have to leave this as verdict pending.

Update, March 27: In light of the fact that the family had an option to choose a less expensive plan, we are changing the rating to Two Pinocchios. Clearly the family may not have been happy with the children going on Medicaid, and it is their right to choose a more expensive plan. But it makes her claim of “unaffordable” harder to swallow.

Two Pinocchios


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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