September 21, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The week after the election, the Supreme Court considers the future of the Affordable Care Act

One week after the November election, possibly while the Senate considers the nomination of a new justice, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about the future of the Affordable Care Act. The main issue is the constitutionality of the act after Congress eliminated the tax penalty for skipping health insurance. The Trump administration joined a coalition of states that said the entire act should be repealed.

The Kaiser Family Foundation does a thorough job of explaining what is at stake in this case.

What might the court do?

  • Preserve Obamacare and strike down the individual mandate, which would keep Obamacare as is, in which people are not penalized if they refuse to purchase health insurance. All sides will likely fail to mention this possibility, which might be more accurately described as a probability, because killing Obamacare and preserving Obamacare are both hot political talking points. But remember that Chief Justice John Roberts was the center of a 2012 decision that preserved Obamacare. And, as Politico points out, Justice Brett Kavanaugh has a history of trying to preserve laws even when part of the statue is troubling. The legal phrase for this is “severability.” Earlier this year he wrote that the court “ … presumes that an unconstitutional provision in a law is severable from the remainder of the law or statute.”
  • There could be a 4-4 tie. You can imagine an unlikely scenario in which the Senate quickly confirmed a justice whose first case was the future of Obamacare. It’s more likely that the case will be heard by a court of eight justices and could end in a tie. In that scenario, it would go back to the federal court in Texas, back to the judge who declared Obamacare to be unconstitutional. The case could ricochet around the appeals courts and sometime later end back up in the Supreme Court.
  • Congress could act to negate any ruling. This requires little mental gymnastics, but if the Democrats win a majority in the Senate and the presidency, it would allow Congress to legislate around the matter by altering the ACA to come in line with any court ruling. If Trump wins and the court strikes down the ACA, it’s uncertain what the administration would propose. The president has repeatedly promised a new comprehensive health care bill but has not produced such a plan. It is possible that the presidential debates could give some clarity and specificity about what he is considering.

Typically, when the court hears cases in the fall, you can count on a ruling in the spring or summer of the next year. Here is a chart of how justices have sided on previous cases involving the Affordable Care Act.

A federal government shutdown looms

Today, we may learn whether Congress can find a way to keep the government running beyond Oct. 1. Congress has a week and a half to find a way to keep the federal government running. It seems too much to ask that Congress actually pass a budget so the best we seem to be able to hope for is a continuing resolution that might keep the government running into early December. But over the weekend, even that possibility looked uncertain.

The Washington Post reported:

Two Republican aides familiar with the situation said (Nancy) Pelosi (D-Calif.) had essentially backed out of a deal with (U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven) Mnuchin that would have traded farm bailout money the White House wants for $2 billion in child nutrition spending Democrats want.

A Democratic aide denied there was any deal in the first place but said Pelosi was pushing Mnuchin for higher spending on child nutrition in exchange for the farm bailout funds. All the aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.

Next steps were unclear. All sides had agreed that the deal would extend government funding through Dec. 11. House Democrats had hoped to file the legislation Friday, but it appeared that Monday would be the earliest that could happen.

One question to be resolved Monday is how long a continuing resolution would last. GovernmentExecutive.com says Democrats want the continuing resolution to last until February, which they hope would allow a newly elected Joe Biden to focus on a few other things before confronting the budget. Republicans want any continuing resolution to end Dec. 11. In addition to skirmishes over providing emergency money for the postal service, another contentious matter that could be included in a continuing resolution is whether to give the Census Bureau more time to complete the 2020 Census, but the pandemic has caused a lot of hiccups.

Confusing pandemic messaging is causing stress and depression

A new University of California Irvine study of 6,500 people says Americans are increasingly stressed out and the often-conflicting information you pass along is a contributing factor. A release that accompanied the study summarized:

The research highlights the connection between mental health and exposure to media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting the need to step away from the television, computer or smartphone to protect psychological well-being.

The research found that younger people reported higher stress and COVID-related depression than older adults, even though the older population is more vulnerable to the virus.

Your readers/viewers/listeners are going to become overwhelmed with everything that you are reporting. The weeks ahead will test your resolve to focus on a buffet of issues from replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the election to the pandemic that, in any other time, would be singularly overwhelming.

Identity theft prevents thousands from getting unemployment benefits

The Detroit Free Press details how when people who have lost their jobs file for unemployment, they often find they have been the victim of identity theft — and until they can get things cleaned up, they will be both jobless and unable to get unemployment benefits.

The story was written by the FREEP’s Tresa Baldas, who is herself an ID theft victim. She wrote that she found out she had been victimized when the state told her somebody had already filed for unemployment using her name:

Turns out, I am among more than 110,000 Michiganders who has reported fraud or identity theft to the state unemployment agency since March, when COVID-19 shut down our state and upended our lives.

I was trying to file for unemployment over the phone in May, only to learn that someone had fraudulently used my name and social security number in 2017 in an effort to collect unemployment benefits.

That bogus claim, I found out this week, was never paid out. But I was never notified by the state that someone tried to use my personal information three years ago to collect unemployment — a scam that froze my ability to file a legitimate claim when the pandemic hit and I was furloughed.

At least that’s what I was told over the phone. I had to file an identity theft report and await a pending investigation, which appears to have fallen into the bureaucratic abyss.

The story says the FBI saw a spike in fraudulent unemployment claims when the government offered supplemental federal unemployment payments. In Michigan alone, the state says it is weeding through 110,000 reports of identity theft or fraudulent unemployment claims — and each one has to be investigated. Half of the people in Michigan who are still awaiting unemployment checks while bills mount are awaiting ID verification, the very issue that arises in ID theft.

And Baldas’ story will give you a feel for the hours waiting on hold that victims spend as they try to get — not to mention all the online forms, emails and other necessary paperwork that has to be filed. And remember, this is a reporter who knows how to navigate governmental systems.

CBS14 in Sacramento, California, tells the story of how a thief drained a young person’s bank account even before the victim got a debit card to spend the money himself. Then the thief changed the address on the account so the victim would not get future mailings. The station found that the state Employment Development Department was printing people’s full Social Security number on forms. That may be connected to how easy it has been to steal people’s identification.

KTRE-TV (East Texas) reports that The Texas Workforce Commission says the federal emergency unemployment benefits program produced a flood of applications, and it’s still working through 3,500 fraud and theft claims.

The Federal Trade Commission warned this summer of a large-scale theft operation with likely international connections that “involves tens of thousands of people.

A few days ago, police arrested 44 people in Beverly Hills, California, who they said may have stolen $2.5 million in unemployment payments.

WLS-TV in Chicago has a different take on this fraud story. They report that a bunch of people in Illinois have gotten checks from other states. WLS reported:

One woman wrote in saying: “I have received two forms in the mail from Kansas Department of Labor indicating that I have applied for unemployment assistance and benefits. I have not applied for any benefits, nor have I ever been employed in Kansas … Please help!”

According to their website, the Kansas Department of Labor says the state is seeing an increase in reports of unemployment fraud claims due to identify theft.

They say fraudulent claims are being filed using the names and personal information of people who have not lost their jobs.

WLS also reminded viewers that if you get an unemployment check that you did not apply for, it should set off alarm bells that your identification has been compromised.

Barely half of Americans say they would take COVID-19 vaccine if they could get it now

In May, 72% of Americans polled by Pew Research said they would take advantage of a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available today. Now, barely half say they would take the shot.

The public losing confidence in vaccines is a catastrophe in the making. People who lean Republican are significantly less likely to be open to a vaccine even though President Donald Trump is the one who is saying that a safe and effective vaccine is only weeks away, a statement that fact-checkers have said has no basis in reality.

Courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

The Pew research says that Americans are deeply concerned that vaccine testing and approval is being fast-tracked at the expense of safety:

(77%) think it’s very or somewhat likely a COVID-19 vaccine will be approved in the United States before its safety and effectiveness are fully understood. And when asked about the pace of the vaccine approval process, 78% say their greater concern is that it will move too fast, without fully establishing safety and effectiveness, compared with just 20% who are more concerned approval will move too slowly, creating unnecessary delays.

Only a third of Black Americans said they would take a COVID-19 shot right now if they could. 72% of Asians said they would step right up now if a vaccine was available. Safety is one reason for the public reluctance, but it is not the only reason.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center.

Half of the population says maybe we don’t need a vaccine. And even though the federal government says a COVID-19 vaccine will not cost you anything out of pocket, a third of the people questioned said they believe it will cost too much.

Tracking mail-in votes day-by-day

The Elections Project is tracking mail-in voting. Professor Michael McDonald of the University of Florida is running the page. The page is tracking mail-in ballot requests and returns for 22 states so far, with more coming on line all the time.

Courtesy of The Elections Project.

The way we live now

Writers know how to turn grammar into humor.

And Halloween in a pandemic is bringing out your creativity. Here’s what distance trick-or-treating looks like:

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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