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April 22, 2016


This critique has been updated four times, most recently on October 31, 2016.
Click here to jump to that update.

A PolitiFactoid.com Critique of...

Fact-checking the Starbucks heckler-Rick Scott spat

as posted by PolitiFact.com on April 6, 2016,
and written by Joshua Gillin, Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman.

(click here for the story at PolitiFact.com)

On April 5, 2016, Florida Governor Rick Scott made the unfortunate decision to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Gainesville, Florida. While he was there, a woman named Cara Jennings began yelling at him from her seat and accused him of being an embarrassment to the state of Florida for allegedly taking certain actions involving Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), and women's access to public health care. Here's video of the encounter:



The next day, PolitiFact.com posted a fact-check of statements made by Jennings and Scott during her tirade. Scott is a Republican while Jennings is a former city commissioner of Lake Worth, Florida, who is described by PolitiFact.com as "a liberal activist." [1]

Let's see how well PolitiFact.com was able to perform a fair and unbiased fact-check under these circumstances. See PolitiFACTOID.com's critique below, which appears as dark blue, indented type, embedded in excerpts from the story.


Fact-checking the Starbucks heckler-Rick Scott spat

It starts like a joke ó Gov. Rick Scott walks into a Gainesville Starbucks ó but one patron wasnít laughing.

Scott stopped in to the coffee chain for a cup Tuesday after touring the recently opened factory and headquarters for biopharmaceutical company Nanotherapeutics. Cara Jennings, a liberal activist and former Lake Worth city commissioner, saw Scott in the downtown store and ripped into him from her seat over health insurance, cuts to womenís health services and being an explicit word.

Her angry rant went viral over the next 24 hours, racking up more than 615,000 YouTube views and airing on national television.

"You cut Medicaid so I couldnít get Obamacare," Jennings yelled. "You are an a------! You donít care about working people. ... You should be ashamed to show your face around here."

Scott replied coolly from the counter, saying "we got a million jobs."

This only set off Jennings more.

"A million jobs? Great. Who here has a great job or is looking forward to finishing school? Do you really feel like you have a job coming up?" she said. "You stripped women of access to public health care. Shame on you, Rick Scott! We depend on those services."

Jennings kept yelling as Scott and several aides left the Starbucks. Scott told reporters Wednesday in Palm Beach that he had not seen the clip, but the woman was "not somebody you could talk to." Jennings did not return calls for comment.

PolitiFact Florida decided to play referee over three claims from the back-and-forth.

Scott and Medicaid

It doesnít appear that Scott has outright "cut Medicaid," as Jennings said, but he has refused to accept the provision of the Affordable Care Act that would expand Medicaid to cover more of the uninsured.

This statement by PolitiFact is very misleading and inaccurate, on at least two fronts.

Cutting Medicaid
Scott not only "doesn't appear" to have cut Medicaid outright, but he actually has not cut Medicaid in any way, shape, or form since becoming governor. There's no gray area there. I'm not sure why PolitiFact made it look gray when it's simply a very clear fact that Scott has not cut Medicaid. (Rest assured that if Scott had cut Medicaid, PolitiFact would have left no doubt about that.)

Medicaid Expansion
Scott has flip-flopped at least once on his support for (or opposition to) expanding Florida Medicaid under Obamacare:

  • Prior to running for governor, Scott used his personal wealth in 2009 to buy TV time for a public campaign against federal enactment of the Affordable Care Act. He opposed the entire ACA, prior to it being signed into law on March 23, 2010.
  • In January 2011, Scott became the governor of Florida. At that point, the ACA still required states to expand Medicaid no later than January 2014. But, on June 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius rendered that requirement optional. That meant each state would have to decide on its own whether or not to expand its Medicaid program under the ACA.
  • About eight months later, in February 2013, Scott held a news conference to announce that he supported Medicaid expansion, and he encouraged the Florida Legislature to expand Medicaid as called for in the ACA. But, the Florida Legislature did not expand Medicaid, despite being publicly advised by Scott to do so. The Florida Senate was in favor of expansion, but the Florida House of Representatives refused.
  • In 2014, the issue got very little attention from the Legislature.
  • Medicaid expansion reemerged in Florida in 2015, with the Florida Senate seeking once again to expand the program under the ACA, while the Florida House remained adamantly opposed. This is when Scott flip-flopped. He sided with the House and said that Medicaid expansion probably wasn't a good idea after all. (By the way, because of the Florida House's dogged refusal to expand Medicaid, the state has still not expanded the program, as of this writing.)

That's a brief history of Scott's position on the issue. These facts do not support PolitiFact's claim that Scott "has refused to accept" Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Scott "accepted" Medicaid expansion in 2013 and told the state legislature to pass it into law. That position endured for two years. PolitiFact knows this yet falsely told its readers otherwise.

There's also a larger truth here that PolitiFact is ignoring, which makes its reporting even more misleading. The truth is that Scott is powerless to "cut Medicaid" and keep Jennings out of Obamacare, which is what Jennings accused him of doing. And, like most governors, Scott is powerless to expand his state's Medicaid program under Obamacare on his own. Florida's Medicaid eligibility criteria and benefits are spelled-out in state law, subject to federal regulations, and no Florida governor can change them. Only the state's Legislature can make such changes to Medicaid.

So, not only is it false that Scott "cut Medicaid" and thereby prevented Jennings from "getting Obamacare." The real truth is that he couldn't do that even if he wanted to. This makes Jennings' accusation not only false but also ridiculous.

Medicaid, the joint state and federal program to cover the very poor, normally extends to people making 44 percent of the federal poverty level (100 percent is currently $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four). When Obamacare was enacted, it was supposed to cover adults up to 138 percent of that level.

In Florida, up to 948,000 people would be eligible under an expanded Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But a 2012 Supreme Court ruling made that provision optional, so Florida and 18 other states currently have not extended coverage. If a state doesnít expand Medicaid, people who make 100 to 400 percent of the poverty level can get marketplace subsidies to buy private insurance.

That leaves a hole for people between 44 and 100 percent of the poverty level. This is known as the coverage gap. An estimated 567,000 Floridians fall into that gap.

PolitiFact decided to go off on a tangent here, for some reason. It's true that states choosing not to expand Medicaid under Obamacare have a "coverage gap," but that issue has no bearing on whether Jennings' accusation is true or false. However, because PolitiFact skewed reality with this tangential issue, I'll get into it also.

Since PolitiFact is based in Florida, you might think the writers would know something about the Medicaid program in their own state. Unfortunately, they seem to have done very little fact-checking along those lines. Each state has different criteria for Medicaid eligibility. Florida's system is based largely on categories and levels of income.

For instance, pregnant women with household incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) are eligible. Children (until they turn 19 years old) with household incomes up to 133 percent of the FPL are eligible. Infants up to age 1 can have household incomes up to 200 percent of FPL and still be eligible. This information is easy to find and is explained in greater detail at the website of Florida's Dept. of Children and Families in this document, which links to this table.

This whole discussion is about Florida Medicaid. It's a mystery why PolitiFact chose to tell us that Medicaid "normally extends to people making 44 percent of the federal poverty level," when that is so obviously not true for Florida Medicaid. Forty-four percent of the FPL is not a Medicaid eligibility threshold for anyone in Florida. PolitiFact's assertion is not only false, but it also damages PolitiFact's reliability, i.e. how can we trust a fact-checking organization to check other people's facts when it can't get its own facts straight, even the very simple ones?

We tried to reach Jennings by phone, text, email and even Facebook, but didnít hear back from her, so we donít really know the specifics of her situation. That makes it difficult to gauge whether she was able to benefit from the health care law. However, she told Tampaís ABC Action News that she that she was a single mother working part time, so itís entirely possible she does fall into the gap.

We rate Jenningsí statement Half True.

How PolitiFact can rate Jennings' statement as "half true" is another mystery. Her accusation is nowhere near being half true – it is 100 percent false, as explained above. PolitiFact seems to think that because Jennings might fall into the coverage gap, her statement is therefore half true. That's ridiculous. Either Scott "cut Medicaid" or he didn't. Since he didn't, Jennings' status regarding the coverage gap is irrelevant.

See below for the accusation's very simple logic depicted in a flowchart. It's not difficult to grasp, but this logic somehow escaped PolitiFact.

Furthermore, "False" is the most lenient rating that PolitiFact could have rendered. You can easily make the case that PolitiFact should have rated this first accusation by Jennings as "Pants on Fire." According to PolitiFact's own standards, a "Pants on Fire" statement is "not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim." As explained above, Jennings' accusation is not only false but it's also ridiculous.

Given all that, I'm forced to rate PolitiFact's rating of Jennings' first accusation as "Pants on Fire." It's quite ridiculous that an organization holding itself out as a reliable fact checker got this issue so incredibly wrong.

Womenís health cuts

Jennings also claimed Scott "stripped women of access to public health care."

Scott signed a law this year that cuts off state funding for any clinic that provides abortions, including Planned Parenthood. We heard estimates that it will cut anywhere from $114,000 to $500,000 for Planned Parenthood, which provides other health services to low-income women.

Itís possible to wrongly assume from Jenningsí statement that Scott slashed womenís health care services broadly across the state. The cut targets abortion clinics, so it isnít a cut for health care offices that donít provide the procedure, such as county health departments.

There is some truth to the statement, but itís too soon to tell exactly how the law will curtail womenís access to publicly supported health care.

We rate Jenningsí claim Half True.

In rating Jennings' second accusation as "half true," PolitiFact includes a curious caveat: "Itís too soon to tell exactly how the law will curtail womenís access to publicly supported health care." First of all, it wasn't  too soon to tell, as you'll see below. But, even if you accept that it was too soon to tell, how could PolitiFact say with a straight face that there's any truth to Jennings' statement, given that it was supposedly too soon to tell?

New State Law
Aside from that inconsistency, PolitiFact uses House Bill 1411, which was passed by the 2016 Florida Legislature and signed into law by Scott on March 28, 2016, in order to support Jennings' claim. If you read the law on the surface, you can make the mistake of believing it supports Jennings. However, if you do even a little bit of research, you'll find that, in reality, the law won't have the effect she described. I read the text of HB 1411. After reading it and looking into it, I had to wonder whether anyone at PolitiFact actually did any research about it.

The portion of the law cited by PolitiFact resides on lines 81 through 98. This portion seeks to prohibit state and local governmental entities, including managed care plans under contract to provide Medicaid services, from making payments to organizations that own, operate, or are affiliated with a clinic that is licensed to perform abortions, unless one or more specified exceptions apply. The law obviously seeks to prevent state and local government dollars from being paid to Planned Parenthood, not only for abortions, but also for any other services that Planned Parenthood clinics might provide.

Mother, May I?
This portion of the law clearly does not pass muster with federal Medicaid regulations, and the federal government said so back in August 2015. Additionally, according to the Associated Press in January 2016, the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, indicated that federal courts have blocked at least five other states from preventing Medicaid dollars from being paid to Planned Parenthood.

But, wait – there's more:

  • On April 1, 2016 (five days before PolitiFact posted its article), the CBS affiliate in Miami (CBS4) reported that this portion of the law has about as much chance of being enforced as the proverbial snowball in hell.
  • The two legislators who sponsored the bill made no secret of the fact that the state would have to seek permission from the federal government in order to enforce the prohibition, and this became public knowledge while the bill was being considered.
  • The federal government has been denying such requests since 2011.

Given all these realities, the state of Florida will not be able to enforce this portion of the law for Medicaid. Other provisions within the law might be implemented, but not the prohibition against making Medicaid payments to Planned Parentood. Surely PolitiFact knows this, but if not, then what does that say about the ability of PolitiFact staffers to fact-check?

Effect of the New Law
So, for Medicaid, PolitiFact was wrong to say that Scott "signed a law this year that cuts off state funding for any clinic that provides abortions." The law won't have that effect. What Scott really did was sign a law that requires the state to ask for federal permission to cut off state Medicaid funding for any clinic that provides abortions. And, we already know that such permission will not be granted.

(By the way, the fact that states cannot block Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood was made clear once again in a letter to all state Medicaid directors from the federal government on April 19, 2016. See that letter here.)

Acknowledging but Ignoring the Truth
There's one more important thing about the law that Scott signed, which PolitiFact acknowledged but then ignored. Even if this portion of the law were enforced, it would not strip women of access to public health care. The law seeks to prevent public dollars from being spent on abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood. Public health care services that are often provided by abortion clinics [2] can also be accessed via other health care providers under Medicaid, such as county health department clinics or other providers within a Medicaid managed care plan's network. Even if the prohibition could be enforced, the law would do nothing to prevent such Medicaid services from being provided in those settings.

Non-Medicaid Services
What about non-Medicaid services? Some Planned Parenthood clinics in Florida provide services outside of Medicaid on behalf of county health departments that are funded through federal programs for family planning or the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant. According to the Florida House's analysis of HB 1411, county health departments may contract with other providers and organizations to perform those services. (See page 12 of this document under the heading "Public Funding.")

So, even if the law were to prevent public funding of non-Medicaid services being paid to Planned Parenthood, that would still "strip funds" only from Planned Parenthood and would not "strip women of access to public health care," which is what Jennings accused Scott of doing. Women could still get those services from providers other than Planned Parenthood since the state could simply utilize its own county health department clinics or other providers. PolitiFact itself acknowledged this but then ignored it, just like it did with Medicaid.

Half True? Not
What does all this mean? It means the basis for Jennings' second accusation is a falsehood – a phantom – which makes the basis for PolitiFact's assessment also a phantom. The second accusation by Jennings is demonstrably false, and it cannot be accurately rated as "half true." Accordingly, I have to rate PolitiFact's rating as "False."

You could argue that this PolitiFact assessment of Jennings' second accusation should also get a "Pants on Fire" rating, given that PolitiFact knows or should know that Scott has done nothing to strip women of access to public health care, which puts PolitiFact's rating in the realm of the ridiculous.

Bottom Line
No matter how you slice it, PolitiFact completely screwed-up both assessments of Jennings' accusations because of (1) simply making a bunch of mistakes, (2) failing to do enough research, or (3) being biased in favor of the "liberal activist" and against Republican Governor Rick Scott. Isn't it strange that whenever something gets botched by the left-leaning mainstream media, the facts always get skewed in favor of "liberal activists" and the left-wing side of the argument and against conservatives and/or Republicans. The reverse never seems to be true.

 

Updates:

UPDATE #1: (June 1, 2016) The mainstream news media are extending Jennings' 15 minutes of fame. The Miami Herald reported today that Jennings will be a "featured guest" at a rally in Gainesville on Friday, June 3, to be held by "a half-dozen groups protesting Scott's opposition to abortion rights." The rally is to be followed by a "benefit fund-raiser," although the Herald declined to say who or what the fund raiser will be raising funds for. The Herald goes on to say that the new Florida law "revokes all state funding to Planned Parenthood for any reason." That is just plain false. As explained above, the law will simply not have that effect, since we know federal Medicaid will not grant permission for the state to do that. Also, the Herald indicated that "a half-dozen" groups are holding the rally. However, an announcement for the rally indicates it is being hosted by ONE group known as "National Women's Liberation" and that the subsequent fund raiser will benefit "Reproductive Justice," "Southern Birth Justice Network," and "Bread and Roses." The Herald decided not to provide that level of detail for some reason.

UPDATE #2: (July 9, 2016) Planned Parenthood sued the state of Florida in federal court to prevent several portions of Florida's House Bill 1411 from being enforced, including the provision cited by PolitiFact when reviewing Jennings' second accusation against Governor Rick Scott. On June 30, Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from implementing those portions of the law, pending a final ruling. All clues in Judge Hinkle's injunction indicate that those portions of the law will be overturned. When that happens, the Florida law will be the latest in a string of state laws seeking to restrict public funding of Planned Parenthood that have been struck down in federal court, as pointed out when I originally posted this critique.

UPDATE #3: (August 19, 2016) Judge Hinkle issued a final ruling yesterday to strike down the portions of the law that his preliminary injunction had temporarily blocked in June, including the provision that sought to prevent local governments and the state from making payments to abortion clinics. The state had earlier decided not to present further evidence in defense of the law at the trial court level.

In the wake of the ruling, it's worth noting that one particular part of the law remains in force, which is a provision requiring one (but not both) of the following: (1) an abortion clinic must have a written patient transfer agreement with a nearby hospital; or (2) physicians who perform abortions at the clinic must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Find this on lines 154-181 of House Bill 1411. This aspect is worth noting because news media routinely mischaracterize this provision of the law in a way that creates a false, negative impression, as follows:

A Texas law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital was recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The news media have made a very bad habit of erroneously reporting that the Florida law contains that same requirement. That happened again yesterday when Politico reported on Judge Hinkle's ruling in the Florida case. As I described above, the Florida law does not require admitting privileges outright. It gives clinics an option of having a patient transfer agreement instead of requiring admitting privileges. That's fundamentally different than the Texas law.

It's a mystery why reporters so often fail to make that important distinction between the two laws... unless it's their goal to defame this aspect of the Florida law by making it seem identical to a Texas law that's already been struck down. It's either that, and/or they're too lazy to bother explaining the difference to their readers, or they're just too dense to understand the difference, or they're unaware of the difference and are simply regurgitating the erroneous information they picked up from some other journalist, without bothering to verify. I can't think of any other explanation. Can you?

UPDATE #4: (October 31, 2016) Today Judge Hinkle issued a ruling that the state of Florida must pay a yet-to-be-determined amount of money to reimburse Planned Parenthood for the legal costs and attorney fees the organization incurred by suing the state over House Bill 1411. I hope a federal judge will order a state government to pay my legal costs if I ever decide to sue the state for some reason or other.

 

Footnotes:

  1. This incident with Florida Governor Rick Scott is not the first time "liberal activist" Cara Jennings has drawn attention to herself by yelling at a Republican. Check out the caption for this photo, which indicates that in January 2012, police had to escort Jennings away from a campaign event in Coral Springs, Florida, after "constant shouting" at Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Maybe this sort of thing is why the PolitiFact writers described her the way they did. (Click here to return to the critique.)
  2. Such as family planning services, cancer screenings, STD screenings, anemia testing, thyroid screenings, cholesterol screenings, diabetes screenings, etc. (Click here to return to the critique.)

 

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