Julie Boonstra, Americans for Prosperity, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial

The Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity has now released its factual documentation for its misleading ad featuring Julie Boonstra, a Michigan woman stricken with Leukemia who suggests Obamacare forced her to take on a new plan that is now “unaffordable.” The ad has been widely pilloried ever since Glenn Kessler discovered that her premiums had come down, likely making her overall costs a wash or even cheaper. Gary Peters, the Dem candidate for Senate in Michigan, had written to TV stations insisting on documentation.

The documentation provided by AFP, which was passed along from TV stations by the Peters campaign, doesn’t actually back up the ad’s key claim. But it tells us something interesting about how the AFP campaign — and by extension, the broader GOP strategy against Obamacare — really work.

To buttress the ad’s charge that Boonstra’s “out of pocket charges are so high, it’s unaffordable,” AFP cites a single Politico article reporting that “consumers may have to dig a little deeper into their wallets to pay for health care in the Obamacare insurance exchanges,” because the law could mean additional out of pocket expenses. Needless to say, that doesn’t shed light on Boonstra’s individual situation. And on that front, AFP’s documentation offers this (emphasis mine):

[I]t has been widely reported that consumers are facing higher out-of-pocket costs due to the Affordable Care Act. Julie Boonstra is one individual whose old insurance plan was deemed illegal under Obamacare, forcing her to find other coverage options. She has made a reasonable judgment that the unexpected, unpredictable out-of-pocket costs associated with her new health care plan are unaffordable.

Morning Plum: Obamacare ‘horror stories’ fall apart under scrutiny, Greg Sargent, Washington Post, Feb. 25

Update, Feb. 21: In an interview with the Dexter Leader responding to this column, Boonstra said: “People are asking me for the numbers and I don’t know those answers — that’s the heartbreak of all of this. It’s the uncertainty of not having those numbers that I have an issue with, because I always knew what I was paying and now I don’t, and I haven’t gone through the tests or seen my specialist yet.”

— Glenn Kessler, The Fact Checker, Washington Post, Feb 21.

At a small dinner party I attended last Sunday evening, at which the guests ranged from a 21-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student to an octogenarian gentleman who had participated in civil rights marches in his native Florida back in the day–I live in a college town–the subject of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire came up. Specifically, the elderly gentleman, who is well-versed in the details of the 20th Century labor union movement and therefore in the specifics of that particular tragedy, brought it up.

Having grown up in a decidedly liberal, pro-labor, politics-obsessed household, I too knew about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy.  And having had an excellent Trial Practice prof. back in law school, I knew something about the tragedy’s aftermath that even the elderly gentleman did not know.  I knew that the factory’s owners were indicted and tried for manslaughter for having ordered the factory doors locked during shifts in order to prevent theft, and that the owners were acquitted thanks to a cautionary tale about, well, trial practice.  Here’s what happened:

In his opening statement, [prosecutor] Charles Bostwick told jurors that he would prove through witnesses that the ninth floor door that might have been an escape route for victims was locked at the time of the fire. More particularly, he said he would prove that the locked door caused the death of Margaret Schwartz, one of the 146 workers killed on March 25.

Bostwick produced 103 witnesses, many of them young Triangle employees dressed in their Sunday best. Through his witnesses Bostwick tried to establish that the fire quickly cut off escape through the Greene Street door, causing the panicked workers to turn to the Washington Place door–a door the prosecution contended was locked.  More than a dozen prosecution witnesses testified that they tried the door and were unable to open it.  Katie Weiner told jurors, “I pushed it toward myself and I couldn’t open it and then I pushed it outward and it wouldn’t go.  I was crying, ‘Girls, help me!’  Other witnesses testified that Blanck and Harris kept the door locked to prevent employees from pilfering shirtwaists.  (On the stand, Harris admitted to an almost obsessive concern with employee theft even though he conceded that the total value of goods taken over the years was under $25).

Bostwick used the testimony of Kate Gartman and Kate Alterman to prove that the locked door caused the death of Margaret Schwartz.  Both had emerged with Schwartz from a ninth-floor dressing room to find the floor in flames.  Alterman offered compelling testimony of concerning Schwartz’s death:

I wanted to go up Greene street side, but the whole door was in flames, so I went in hid myself in the toilet rooms and bent my face over the sink, and then ran to the Washington side elevator, but there was a big crowd and I couldn’t pass through there. I noticed someone, a whole crowd around the door, and I saw the Bernstein, the manager’s brother trying to open the door, and there was Margaret near him. Bernstein tried the door, he couldn’t open it and then Margaret began to open the door.  I take her on one side I pushed her on the side and I said, “Wait, I will open that door.” I tried, pulled the handle in and out, all ways–and I couldn’t open it. She pushed me on the other side, got hold of the handle and then she tried. And then I saw her bending down on her knees, and her hair was loose, and the trail of her dress was a little far from her, and then a big smoke came and I couldn’t see. I just know it was Margaret, and I said, “Margaret,” and she didn’t reply. I left Margaret, I turned my head on the side, and I noticed the trail of her dress and the ends of her hair begin to burn.

In his cross-examination of Alterman, Max Steuer settled on an unusual approach.  He asked Alterman to repeat the account of Margaret Schwartz’s death again and again.  Each time, the words Alterman used were very similar, but not identical.  Steuer hoped that the repetition of phrases (e.g., “curtain of fire,” a desperate man running around “like a wildcat”) would suggest to the jury that the witness had been coached by the defense.  In redirect, Bostwick asked his witness why she used similar language each time she was asked to describe Schwartz’s death.  Alterman replied, “Because he asked me the very same story over and over, and I tried to tell him the same thing, because he asked me the same thing over and over.”  Yet, to many observers, Steuer had succeeded in damaging Alterman’s credibility without ever directly attacking it.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial, Doug Linder, 2001

I related this at dinner on Sunday, best as I could recall it.  (I didn’t remember the details; I needed to google it when I got home, to refresh my memory.)

The original Kessler blog post that Sargent references was posted on Feb. 20 and mentioned an interview with Boonstra published in her hometown paper, the Dexter Leader, on Jan. 28. In that interview, she detailed what happened, including, as I discussed in a post here on Feb. 21, her failed attempts to obtain accurate information from healthcare.com throughout the last three months of the year, and also accurate information and assistance from her congressional representative, Republican Tim Walberg, and apparently from Blue Care, the company from which she received her cancellation notice last fall.   Walberg did, however, offer her a free trip to Washington to attend the State of the Union address as his guest, which is why The Dexter Leader interviewed her.

In late December, through the assistance of the Michigan Farm Bureau, Boonstra found a plan, apparently with Blue Care, with monthly premiums for one-half the premiums for her old policy, but with what she claimed was unlimited out-of-pocket expenses in contrast to what she claimed was no out-of-pocket expenses with her old plan. Her out-of-pocket expenses are large and vary month-to-month depending on how much chemotherapy she needs that month.

In both the Boonstra AFP ad and in that newspaper interview, she appears unaware that because her new plan is ACA-compliant, her maximum annual out-of-pocket expenses amount to $2 more than her annual savings in monthly premiums. In exchange for which, as I and others, including, brilliantly, Salon’s Brian Beutler, have pointed out, she gains such benefits as the removal of an annual coverage cap, the removal of a lifetime coverage cap, the removal of the possibility of cancellation, and the removal of the possibility of premium increases based upon her medical condition.  In other words, the removal of the reasons her old plan is not ACA-compliant.  And she gets to keep her doctor under her new plan, to boot!

Note to Ms. Boonstra: Those are the numbers–which Blue Care and Rep. Walberg should have apprised you of when you asked each of them.

There also is, as I pointed out in my post last Friday, the likelihood that although apparently she did not take advantage of any available federal subsidies, because she did not purchase her plan through an ACA exchange– she wasn’t able to, since healthcare.com was not working for Michigan during the much of the last three months of the year, and, courtesy of Michigan’s Republican-controlled state government, there is no state-operated exchange–she likely will qualify for a subsidy beginning next year.  In that January interview with the Dexter Leader, she said the Farm Bureau thought she might qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, but they were unable to determine that.  That her income was low enough that they tried to look into that indicates, though, that she does qualify for a subsidy.

Follow-up note to Ms. Boonstra: Those, too, are the numbers–the ones in the years to come. What would the numbers for you be in, say, five years, absent the ACA protections that even this year are costing you a maximum of only $2?

Ms. Boonstra wasn’t lying in her ad; she simply was stating a misconception on her part, an inaccuracy of fact that she thought was accurate.  Then. When she cut the ad. Before the ad was aired and vetted by the news media. The ad sponsored by people who knew she was misinformed, and used her misconception–and her sympathetic situation as a leukemia patient–to misinform the public.  But she knows now that her new ACA-compliant plan, which allows her to keep her specialist, is no more unaffordable than was the previous plan, and may well be more affordable even this year, and almost certainly will be beginning next year (since she probably will qualify for a subsidy), than her previous plan.  Why, then, does she continue to say that the uncertainty of costs–that is, whether she will have to pay $2 more this year than she did last year, or will instead save money–is bothering her?

Especially since a real uncertainty is whether the premiums and out-of-pocket costs for her old plan would have remained the same this year, had the policy still been available, or instead would have increased, and if so by how much.

Okay, so yesterday, Harry Reid states on the Senate floor that the AFP ads being aired in various states and congressional districts depicting self-styled Obamacare victims all contain lies, and then a few minutes later said he couldn’t say for sure that every AFP ad contains lies, but that a vast, vast majority do.

Which of course prompted the rightwing media folks to claim that Reid had called the people in these ads liars.  Some are; some are knowingly misrepresenting the fact situation.  Others, Ms. Boonstra pretty clearly among them, are misrepresenting their fact situation because at the time they cut the commercial, they themselves misunderstood the fact situation.  Some of them pathetically and comically, as reported by Kessler on Tuesday:

“This Affordable Care Act, I am going to have bureaucrats telling me what kind of services I am going to qualify for. To be honest with you, I’m scared to death.”

–elderly man at a Town Hall meeting held by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), which appears in an ad by pro-Republican group Americans for Prosperity

Someone in Amash’s district had asked Kessler to verify whether or not this elderly man was on Medicare.  Kessler verified that he was.  So this man is scared to death because he’s going to have the same bureaucrats telling him what he’s going to qualify for who have been telling him since he reached age 65 what he qualifies for. Terrifying!

In its statement accompanying what it calls its documentation in support of the Boonstra ad, the AFP admitted that its ads are using people who have made judgments based on false factual belief, judgments that are reasonable only because they were based on false factual belief. And why not? Viewers can be depended upon to conflate a cancer patient or an elderly Medicare recipient with an organization that claims to conflate judgment or fear based upon false information with judgment or fear based upon accurate information, and that co-opts cancer patients and confused elderly citizens for its own diabolical ends, right?  Equal expenditures are equally affordable or equally unaffordable; it’s a matter of fact, not judgment, but the public won’t realize that.

The AFP has made a reasonable judgment that there is no point beyond which the story no longer is Obamacare but instead the concerted effort by a rightwing-billionaire-sponsored group to victimize the general public with a barrage of falsehoods using–figuratively as well as literally–circumstantially vulnerable people to do so.  Attorney Max Steuer is long dead, but it doesn’t matter.  By November, the AFP will have sufficiently illustrated the Democrats’ point more than adequately.