Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) campaign blasted the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post in the latest edition of the “Bern Notice,” demanding the outlet retract its “inaccurate” fact check on Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.”
Sanders made the claim during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union last week, but the Washington Post concluded that his claim was based on a “flawed statistic.” The Sanders campaign took issue with the analysis and wrote a letter to Washington Post editor Marty Baron, demanding a “full retraction” and arguing that Sanders correctly quoted the study from the American Journal of Public Health, which is “not the National Enquirer”:
Senator Sanders accurately cited a statistic that was published in this distinguished public health journal. In what world does this merit one so-called “pinocchio” let alone three? Further, this “three pinocchio” rating isn’t just falsely attacking the veracity of Senator Sanders and misleading the public on one of the most serious problems facing the American people. It is also tarnishing the reputation of the author of the editorial who went to great lengths to have it reviewed by his peers, who believes “your false claim” has “besmirched” his “reputation as a scholar,” and who is also demanding a retraction.
“Unfortunately, this latest Fact Checker article is part of a much broader pattern of bias against Senator Sanders,” Sanders’ Senior Adviser Warren Gunnels continued, listing off the campaign’s well-documented list of grievances against the outlet.
The letter continued:
The Washington Post says it adheres to the highest journalistic standards of objectivity, fairness and accuracy If that is the case, why does the Post’s editorial leadership allow the Fact Checker to regularly, baselessly disparage Senator Sanders with smears that are demonstrably inaccurate? And why has the Post’s editorial leadership not corrected or retracted these smears when they are proven false?
We hope that you will address the Fact Checker’s inappropriate coverage of Senator Sanders — first by immediately retracting this most recent piece, and then by committing the newspaper to covering Senator Sanders in a fair, professional and ethical manner that finally starts honoring the most basic standards of accuracy.
We look forward to hearing your immediate response to this request.
According to the Post’s analysis, Sanders used a statistic that is far too general. While individuals may list medical bills as a contributing factor for filing for bankruptcy, it does not necessarily mean that the medical bills were the driving force behind the final decision to do so.
As the Post reported:
The Sanders campaign told us he was citing a statistic from a public health journal. Critics say the study he’s citing casts too wide a net because it counts anyone who mentioned medical bills or illness among their reasons for declaring bankruptcy, not just those who said it was the main reason or a big piece.
Bankruptcies typically involve multiple causes, and in some cases, medical bills may be a small piece of the pie. Sanders glosses over those nuances, stating that health-care costs drove people to bankruptcy in all 500,000 cases. The study he’s citing doesn’t establish that.
The study Sanders cited included individuals who said that medical expenses played “somewhat” into their decision to file for bankruptcy. It does not, however, specifically indicate that the mounting medical bills were the sole reason.
“Sanders’s claim works only by erasing this ambiguity and taking ‘somewhat’ to mean ‘mostly,'” the Post assessed.
The Post also cited a 2018 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which examined patients in California. It found that “medical bankruptcies represented 4 percent of all bankruptcies,” calling Sanders’ claim of 500,000 into question:
“Based on our estimate of 4 percent of bankruptcy filings per year and the approximately 800,000 bankruptcy filings per year, our number would be much closer to something on the order of 30,000-50,000 bankruptcies caused by a hospitalization,” one of the co-authors of the NEJM study, economist Raymond Kluender of Harvard Business School, wrote in an email.
However, the Sanders campaigns stuck to its guns, telling the Post, “Medical debt caused by the greed of pharmaceutical and insurance corporations is crippling millions of Americans, and it’s clear that 500,000 is the bare minimum number of bankruptcy filings caused by medical debt each year.”
While David U. Himmelstein, who led the AJPH study, said Sanders accurately cited the study’s findings, the Post concluded that Sanders’ assessment was a “classic case of cherry-picking a number from a scientific study and twisting it to make a political point” and gave his statement Three Pinocchios.
Sanders’ letter follows his vow to erase $81 billion in medical debt:
It is nothing less than barbaric that the leading cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt.
These people didn't spend all their money on luxury items. Their crime was that they got sick.
We are going to cancel all $81 billion in existing past-due medical debt.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 31, 2019