Commentary

You Mislead!

It is a good thing that other congressmen did not follow Rep. Joe Wilson’s lead. If they yelled out every time President Obama said something untrue about health care, they would quickly find themselves growing hoarse.

By our count, the president made more than 20 inaccurate claims in his speech to Congress. We have excluded several comments that are deeply misleading but not outright false. (For example: Obama pledged not to tap the Medicare trust fund to pay for reform. But there is no money in that “trust fund,” anyway, so the pledge is meaningless.) Even so, we may have missed one or more false statements by the president. Our failure to include one of his comments in the following list should not be taken to constitute an endorsement of its accuracy, let alone wisdom.

1. “Buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer.” The Congressional Budget Office writes, “Premiums for policies purchased in the individual insurance market are, on average, much lower — about one-third lower for single coverage and one-half lower for family policies.” It is true that individual insurance policies are generally 30 percent less comprehensive than employer-provided insurance, and comparable individual policies are about twice as expensive. But much of the extra cost is a function of the tax penalty on purchasing such insurance and the stunted market that penalty has yielded.

2. “There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage.” An outright falsehood, whether you use the president’s noncitizen-free estimate or the standard, questionable estimate of 46 million uninsured residents.

By our count, the president made more than 20 inaccurate claims in his speech to Congress.”

A study prepared for the federal government estimates that 9 million people counted as “uninsured” in the standard estimate are in fact enrolled in Medicaid. The left-leaning Urban Institute estimates that 12 million are eligible but not enrolled, meaning they could get coverage at any time. Health economists Mark Pauly of the University of Pennsylvania and Kate Bundorf of Stanford estimate that one quarter to three quarters of the uninsured can afford to purchase coverage, but choose not to do so.

3.“And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage.” The paper that generated this estimate assumed that two months of severe job losses would continue forever. Applying that paper’s methodology to a broader period of rising unemployment (January 2008 through August 2009) produces a figure below 9,000.

It also assumes those coverage losses are permanent. Like many of the 46 million Americans we label “uninsured,” many of those 9,000 will regain coverage after a number of months. (David Freddoso illustrates the absurdity of assuming that all coverage losses are permanent.)

4. “One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy… They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.” He didn’t die because of it. The originator of this false claim, a writer for Slate named Timothy Noah, has admitted he got it wrong.

5. “Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne.” Scott Harrington supplied more facts in the Wall Street Journal: “The woman’s testimony at the June 16 hearing confirms that her surgery was delayed several months. It also suggests that the dermatologist’s chart may have described her skin condition as precancerous, that the insurer also took issue with an apparent failure to disclose an earlier problem with an irregular heartbeat, and that she knowingly underreported her weight on the application.” The woman deserves sympathy, but Obama has stretched the truth here.

6. Rising costs are “why so many employers … are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance.” Perhaps no other issue generates as much of a consensus among health-care economists as this one: The “employer’s share” of employees’ health-care costs comes out of those employees’ wages, not out of profits. In this comment and in five others in his speech, Obama contradicts that basic truth. Employers aren’t forcing their employees to pick up a larger share of the bill because they can’t. Workers are already paying the entire bill.

7. Rising costs are “why American business that compete internationally… are at a huge disadvantage.” False. The rising cost of health benefits does not increase employers’ labor costs because, again, wages adjust downward to compensate. The Congressional Budget Office, under the leadership of Obama’s OMB director, Peter Orszag, confirmed that health-care costs do not hinder competitiveness. Obama economic aide Christina Romer has called this competitiveness argument “schlocky.”

8. “Those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care.” That number comes from a left-wing advocacy group. A Kaiser Family Foundation study debunked the group’s analysis, reaching an estimate closer to $200 per year for a family. The CBO report mentioned above reached the same conclusion.

9. At this point, Obama said, “These are the facts. Nobody disputes them.” This comment continues Obama’s already long tradition of trying to curtail debate by denying that anyone disagrees with him.

10. “[Reform] will slow the growth of health-care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.” In July, CBO director Douglas Elmendorf said, “In the legislation that has been reported we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs.” The CBO projects that the legislation that Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) has since introduced “would reduce the federal budgetary commitment to health care, relative to that under current law, during the decade following the 10-year budget window,” but hints that the 40 percent cut in Medicare’s reimbursement rates, which helps Baucus achieve that feat, is politically unrealistic. (More on that below.) Health economist Victor Fuchs writes that the proposals before Congress “aim at cost shifting rather than cost reduction.” Obama and his allies have yet to demonstrate anything to the contrary.

11. “Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have. Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.” Obama’s wording is lawyerly: While not denying that his plan would cause people to lose existing coverage with which they are satisfied, he leads us to believe that he is denying it. But even on its own terms, Obama’s claim is false. The CBO estimates that slashing payments to Medicare Advantage, as Obama advocates, “would reduce the extra benefits that would be made available to beneficiaries through Medicare Advantage plans.” It would also cause some people to lose their coverage.

12. Requiring insurers to cover preventive care “saves money.” Nope. According to a review in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not.”

13. “The [bogus] claim… that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens… is a lie, plain and simple.” Sarah Palin claimed that Obama’s “death panels” would deny people medical care, not actively kill them. If Palin believes her claim, it is not “a lie, plain and simple.” Most important, the substance of Palin’s claim is, in fact, true. Obama himself proposed a new Independent Medicare Advisory Council with the authority to deny life-extending care to the elderly and disabled.

14. “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” For better or worse, the president’s plan would, in his words, insure illegal immigrants. Various federal agencies, immigration critics, and the media all acknowledge that a small number of undocumented aliens obtain Medicaid benefits despite being ineligible. The president seeks to expand Medicaid, which would create greater opportunities for ineligible aliens to enroll.

The House Democrats’ health-insurance exchange, which Obama supports, would “apply to” undocumented aliens. The CRS writes that the House legislation “does not contain any restrictions on noncitizens participating in the Exchange — whether the noncitizens are legally or illegally present.” Nor does it require that the legal status of people receiving subsidies be verified.

Finally, Obama supports granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, which would make them eligible for government benefits under his health plan.

15. “Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.” Unless Obama refers to some draft legislation inside his head, this claim is false. The House bill allows the “government option” to pay for abortions directly from the U.S. Treasury. Both the House and Baucus bills would subsidize private insurance that cover abortions. (See Douglas Johnson’s comment on this article.)

16. Critics of the public option would “be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won’t be. I’ve insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” How quickly we forget the example of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Like those institutions, the public option would benefit from an implicit subsidy: Everyone would know that Washington would not allow the program to fail, and financial institutions would therefore offer it better rates. (During the Clinton administration, Obama adviser Larry Summers reported that a similar implicit guarantee was worth $6 billion per year to Fannie and Freddie.) The public option would thus be able to undercut its less-subsidized competitors.

17. “And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.” Unless the president proposes to abolish insurance, or abolish all care management, there will always be tension between patients, doctors, and public/private insurers over what patients “need.” Such tensions are sure to arise under the president’s IMAC proposal.

But even if a new program would be “administered by the government, just like Medicaid or Medicare,” it would interfere in those decisions. As an administrative-law judge wrote to one of us after Obama’s address: “I am a government bureaucrat … and I just happen to be reviewing [six] cases, albeit involving Medicare and Medicaid, where the government has inserted itself between the patient and the care prescribed by the physician.”

18. “I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future.” “The plan will not add to our deficit.” None of the bills before Congress can credibly claim to keep the deficit from rising. The one that comes closest, the Baucus bill, does so by making the wildly implausible assumption that Congress will allow 40 percent cuts in physician payments under Medicare to take place in 2012. Congress has routinely refused to support much smaller cuts.

19. “Now, add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years.” Even the supposedly parsimonious Baucus bill would cost closer to $2 trillion than $1 trillion once we “add it all up.” The CBO says that bill would spend a mere $774 billion over ten years, in part because the spending begins late in that ten-year window. Republican staffers on the Senate Budget Committee estimate that the Baucus bill would cost $1.7 trillion over the first ten years of full implementation.

Moreover, the preliminary CBO score does not measure the full cost of the bill because it does not include the mandates Baucus would impose on states (about $37 billion) and the private sector (not yet estimated, but 60 percent of total costs in Massachusetts). The other bills would cost even more.

20. “The middle class will realize greater security, not higher taxes.” Obama would make health insurance compulsory for the middle class (and everyone else). If he thinks that isn’t a tax, he should listen to his economic adviser Larry Summers, or his nominee for assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS, Sherry Glied. Both liken the “individual mandate” to a tax, as do other prominent health economists like Uwe Reinhardt (Princeton) and Jonathan Gruber (MIT). The CBO affirms that the penalties for non-compliance “would be equivalent to a tax or fine.”

If Obama thinks the middle class wouldn’t pay the taxes he wants to impose on the “drug and insurance companies,” he should read this CBO report or talk to the junior senator from West Virginia, who accurately describes those levies as a “big, big tax” on middle-class coalminers.

21. “I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are.” Who are these special interests? In case Obama hadn’t noticed, everyone from the drug-makers to the unions to the insurance companies he demonizes are spending millions to build momentum for his version of reform — in no small part because Obama has promised to buy them off with middle-class tax dollars.

When President Obama makes a factual claim about health-care policy, he does not deserve the benefit of the doubt about its accuracy. We do not know whether he has been badly misinformed or is deliberately trying to mislead. Either way, he cannot be trusted to reform American health care.

Michael F. Cannon is director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute and coauthor of Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It. Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review.