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Who's behind websites aiming to confound Alaska enrollment in Healthcare.gov?

Laurel Andrews
The two sites use different tactics to arrive at the same piece of advice: Delay enrollment in Healthcare.gov.
istockphoto

Two anti-Obamacare websites with ties to national conservative groups are attempting to stop Alaskans from enrolling in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The two sites – Know the Facts Alaska and Don’t Enroll Alaska -- use different tactics to arrive at the same piece of advice: Delay enrollment in Healthcare.gov. While Don’t Enroll is obvious in its anti-Obamacare sentiment, Know the Facts operates under the guise of neutrality, meanwhile offering Alaskans misleading information on the law.

The website owners are not transparent. But both have ties to conservative groups working to derail the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama’s signature health-care reform law.

The websites' creators are not listed on either site, and both were registered using domain name privacy services.

Yet there are hints that the two websites are connected:

•  They were created within minutes of each other, a fact first pointed out by Alaska Commons.

•  Their Facebook pages were created on the same day.

•  Television advertisements for both websites run within the same commercial break.

•  And the websites are nearly identical in their layout and font selections.

Neither website, nor their Facebook pages, offer a contact email. Sign-up forms on Know the Facts allow folks to register their emails for more information, and on Don’t Enroll people can “take the pledge” not to enroll in the insurance health exchange.

An administrator running each Facebook page has offered a contact email, following reader comments asking for one. However, multiple emails were not returned to Alaska Dispatch by either Know the Facts on Don’t Enroll.

So who is behind the websites?

Heidi Gay with the Alaska chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) spoke about the two sites on Monday. AFP is a conservative group backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, which seeks to influence elections and public policy across the country.

AFP has promoted Know the Facts on its Facebook page. Know the Facts has likewise promoted a town-hall meeting on health care sponsored in part by AFP, held Tuesday evening. Tuesday's meeting featured two senior fellows from the Foundation for Government Accountability. The meeting was also partially funded by the Alaska Policy Forum, executive director David Boyle said.

Gay said that both websites were run by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a conservative think tank based out of Naples, Fla., that may also have ties to the Koch brothers. Gay later revised her statement to say that FGA was “directly involved” in the two sites.

On Tuesday, senior fellow with FGA Josh Archambault denied that the organization runs the sites.

They are “not our websites,” he said, but are run by a “broad coalition of folks.” He described the coalition as “organic,” and “not highly structured or organized.”

FGA’s role was to provide those website operators with relevant research, he said.

So who are the other folks involved in the coalition? “Honestly, I don’t know,” Archambault said, adding that he would “circle back” with some folks to see if he could get in touch with someone involved with the site who would be willing to speak with Alaska Dispatch.

He believes transparency regarding the website’s operators “almost doesn’t matter. I welcome all activities” surrounding health care outreach, he said.

Archambault said that Americans for Prosperity had “participated in some of the conversation” surrounding the sites. 

Gay denied that AFP was involved in either website.

Spreading misinformation

Tyann Boling, chief operating officer at Enroll Alaska, said the websites were misleading. Enroll Alaska is a division of Northrim Bank, an insurance brokerage working to sign Alaskans up for health care under the new law. “Their whole purpose is to get people to focus on the not-positive side” of ACA, she said. 

Boling pointed to a five-question quiz on the Know the Facts site that says it will help users determine whether to enroll in the exchange or wait. The questions ask, among other things, whether you are a seasonal worker, or whether you "like having choices" in your health care providers.

Yet regardless of the answers plugged in to the quiz, no matter which way you try, the advice is always the same: Wait. There is no other answer. It's "very misleading," Boling said.

Another point of dispute for Boling is Know the Facts claim that “there is no trial period for the exchange plans.”

This statement is true – however, it’s always been true, and has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act. People can change their insurance plans during open enrollment, generally a one-month period every year. The same holds true for employer-sponsored plans. Yet Know the Facts presents it as a consequence of the Affordable Care Act.

Their Facebook page also sends out skewed information. An Oct. 23 post says that “there are no trial periods with the new health insurance exchange plans, so if you switch, going back to private insurance may be difficult.”

All health care plans on Healthcare.gov are private insurance plans – there’s no leaving, or “going back" to private insurance.

“They are saying that people should wait and talk to other people who enroll in a health insurance policy,” Boling said, but “whether you’re purchasing it on the marketplace, off the marketplace, it doesn’t change the fact that all of those policies have the same requirements,” and all are private.

Another example is a Facebook post from on Nov. 8. Know the Facts shared Healthcare.gov’s photo, which states “nearly six in 10 of the uninsured will pay $100 or less per month for health insurance.”

Know the Facts asks: “Has anyone in Alaska purchased a plan for $100 a month or less? What is the deductible level? Is that for a single person? This seems misleading and we want to get the facts straight.”

Yet Healthcare.gov does not claim that plans will be less than $100 - it claims folks will pay less than $100. That includes the federal subsidy, which allows for greatly reduced health insurance rates for folks 400 percent or less of federal poverty level, an estimated 17 million Americans

Know the Facts ignores the federal subsidy completely. It does not mention the tax credit on its website -- except for mentioning the IRS involvement. Know the Facts does, however, note when the next state of Alaska election, and federal elections take place. 

Consumers should be aware “this is a politically fueled, charged topic. There are people who are going to try and spew information out there in their political interest,” Boling said.

Sue Brogan, project manager with the United Way, said that “we’re aware of both of those sites, but it’s really not our role to determine their accuracy. We’re not seeing either one as a tool.” 

David D’Amato, senior director of health policy at the Alaska Primary Care Association wrote regarding the websites, "A great many people in organizations throughout Alaska are engaged in and committed to health care reform for Alaska, and websites like this do not advance the necessary and relevant debate concerning what health reform for Alaska should look like, rather, they seek only to defend the obviously unsustainable status quo."

Boling stressed that Alaskans can contact organizations working to educate Alaskans about nuances of the law. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, United Way and Enroll Alaska are all available to help educate Alaskans.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews