Transparency Advocates Log the Disappearance of Obamacare Information From Government Websites - Pacific Standard

Transparency Advocates Log the Disappearance of Obamacare Information From Government Websites

Though the Affordable Care Act remains in effect, various mentions of it have disappeared from .gov webpages.
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Transparency advocates worry that changes to Medicare.gov could leave Medicare users wondering if their status has changed.

Transparency advocates worry that changes to Medicare.gov could leave Medicare users wondering if their status has changed.

The only webpage on Medicare.gov that was dedicated to describing how the Affordable Care Act affects Medicare was quietly taken down last year, a government-transparency group has found.

Before December of 2017, visitors to Medicare.gov could navigate to a page called "The Affordable Care Act & Medicare" from the website's "About Us" section. The page told Medicare enrollees whether the passage of the Affordable Care Act—commonly known as Obamacare—meant they had to sign up for new plans. (It didn't.) The page also emphasized that the law now meant Medicare covered more disease-prevention services and brand-name prescription drugs than before. Transparency advocates worry that the page's unexplained disappearance, after months of hot debate over Obamacare's fate, could be confusing for Medicare users, leaving them wondering if their status has changed.

"Doing things quietly can oftentimes be more confusing than having a notice or having some kind of other communication about why things are changing," says Toly Rinberg, who tracks changes to .gov websites for the non-profit Sunlight Foundation. Rinberg and a team of colleagues discovered the change to Medicare.gov.

Peter Cunningham, a professor of health policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, agreed that maintaining a page about Obamacare on Medicare.gov could help alleviate anxieties. "Given the uncertainty about the future of the ACA and other changes, I think it would still be helpful to have that kind of information for Medicare beneficiaries, since I'm sure a lot of them are wondering how they might be affected," he writes in an email. That said, Cunningham points out that Obamacare doesn't affect Medicare users that much. Their status hasn't changed even with the upheaval around the ACA. Medicaid enrollees are more affected, and ACA information is still prominently displayed on Medicaid.gov.

To be clear, Obamacare is still on the books. Congress failed to repeal it. The act has undergone some important changes, such as having its "individual mandate," or the provision that required all Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty, repealed. It's heavily opposed by many Republican politicians and the Trump administration, who have characterized it as failing and damaging to businesses and people. They've proposed policies to further undermine the law.

In statement in response to questions from Pacific Standard, a spokesman from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services writes: "The ACA page was created when the law was new and people wanted to know how the new law would impact Medicare." Now that the ACA has been around for a while, officials decided to take the webpage down "based on advice from web staff who understand how beneficiaries and web users navigate the site." The page attracted little traffic, he writes.

Journalists and researchers have documented various mentions of the ACA disappearing from .gov websites. An ACA link was removed from the Department of Health and Human Services' homepage within hours of President Donald Trump's inauguration, the New York Times reports. Later, summaries of the law and positive user testimonies were taken down.

Rinberg says he and his colleagues, who are automatically tracking changes to about 25,000 .gov webpages having to do with health care and immigration, have seen removals of Obamacare information from numerous websites, including that of the Department of Health and Human Services, offices within the department, and other health agencies. The Sunlight Foundation plans to publish a detailed report about those changes in about a month. "I think that the timing and the unexplained removal is something that the public should know about and it also reveals a shift in what the agency wants to present," Rinberg says. "There's a reason why this was removed now, versus a year ago."

*Update—May 17th, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Rinberg worked with a larger team of colleagues to discover changes to Medicare.gov.

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