Scant Consumer Information in Local TV Coverage of Obamacare

March 17, 2017 Updated: March 17, 2017

Local TV news coverage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare, generally focused more on politics than on information consumers can use to help choose insurance, a recent study suggests.

Overall, less than half of ACA-related news coverage focused on health insurance products, while much of the rest of the spots concentrated on political disagreements over the law, researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health.

Just seven percent of stories covered policy changes designed to help make coverage more affordable for many consumers – including expanded eligibility for Medicaid and subsidies to cover some of the cost of insurance premiums.

“We were surprised by the overall low frequency with which local TV news covered key components of the ACA – the Medicaid expansion and the subsidies provided to help people earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level afford their premiums and cost-sharing,” said lead study author Sarah Gollust of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

“These are the most important policy tools that the law used to expand insurance coverage to lower-income Americans, but were not a focus of news coverage,” Gollust said by email. “When examining policy implementation details, the news tended to cover website glitches and enrollment numbers more than the actual details in the law that could help people.”

For the study, researchers examined 1,569 local news stories about Obamacare that aired in 2013 and 2014.

About one third of the stories focused on glitches with the government websites set up to help consumers enroll in health plans, the study found.

Another 27 percent of the stories concentrated on the number of people signing up for coverage.

People affiliated with the federal or state government or political parties were the most common sources for interviews, and the news stories only rarely cited research on ACA.

For millions of Americans who get most of their news from local television, the balance of stories about Obamacare and the information provided during newscasts could be the main way consumers determined if the law was a failure or a success, the researchers note.

One limitation of the study is that it’s not based on a representative sample of all local news coverage nationwide about the ACA, the authors point out. It also didn’t examine other sources of news, whether national broadcast networks, newspapers, radio, websites or social media.

Still, there’s an undeniable link between people’s exposure to news media and decisions they make about their health care, including whether they selected public health coverage made available through Obamacare, said Brendan Saloner, a health policy and management researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“If people are feeling discouraged, confused, or overwhelmed, this can reduce their likelihood of seeking health insurance, which may keep them uninsured and undermine their access to valuable medical services,” Saloner, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“In fact, a large portion of people who are uninsured are eligible for subsidies or Medicaid, but many of these people do not realize that they could benefit from these programs,” Saloner added. “The news media can fill this informational void.”