Search This Blog

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Policy by Anecdote and President Obama's Mother

Public policy analysts warn against "policy by anecdote," the practice of making important decisions on the basis of human-interest stories that might be attention-getting but not necessarily representative -- or even true. The latest case in point comes from the president, as The New York Times reports:
The White House on Wednesday declined to challenge an account in a new book that suggests that President Obama, in his campaign to overhaul American health care, mischaracterized a central anecdote about his mother’s deathbed dispute with her insurance company.

During his presidential campaign and subsequent battle over a health care law, Mr. Obama quieted crowds with the story of his mother’s fight with her insurer over whether her cancer was a pre-existing condition that disqualified her from coverage.

In offering the story as an argument for ending pre-existing condition exclusions by health insurers, the president left the clear impression that his mother’s fight was over health benefits for medical expenses.

But in “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” author Janny Scott quotes from correspondence from the president’s mother to assert that the 1995 dispute concerned a Cigna disability insurance policy and that her actual health insurer had apparently reimbursed most of her medical expenses without argument.
Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard, said that if an alternate narrative about Ms. Dunham’s dispute had been discovered during the 2008 campaign “people would have considered it a significant error.” He added: “I just took for granted that it was a pre-existing condition health insurance issue.”