The Obama administration announced yesterday its plans for implementing ObamaCare's mandate that consumers purchase first-dollar coverage for preventive services. The press release reads (emphasis added):
Administration Announces Regulations Requiring New Health Insurance Plans to Provide Free Preventive Care
Of course the administration would emphasize that consumers will pay nothing for these services at the moment of service, and elide the fact that this mandate will increase their health insurance premiums. The administration's use of the word "free" is what we call spin.
What's surprising--and more than a little disappointing--is that journalists and headline writers at major media organizations would repeat the administration's spin, as if the government really is giving away free stuff:
- New York Times: "Health Plans Must Provide Some Tests at No Cost...free coverage...free screenings...free preventive services..."
- Los Angeles Times: "Healthcare law offers preventive care at no cost"
- Politico: "New rules: Free preventive care...free under new federal guidelines."
- Reuters: "Healthcare overhaul mandates free preventive care...no extra cost to consumers...Medicare patients will have access to free prevention services..."
- Wall Street Journal: "White House Unveils Free Preventative Services...services that will be free to consumers...free preventive care...free preventive care..."
Each use of "free" and "no cost" in these excerpts is false, even within its original context. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost. No government can change that. Mandating that insurers cover certain services does not magically make them free. Consumers still pay, just in the form of higher health insurance premiums and lower wages.
The Wall Street Journal (in paragraph six), The New York Times (paragraph seven), Reuters (paragraph 16), and the Los Angeles Times (paragraph 19 or so) do mention that consumers will pay for this mandate in the form of higher premiums--but that doesn't make the untrue stuff true. It just makes the article internally inconsistent. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times incorrectly suggests that the higher premiums would be offset by lower out-of-pocket spending. (The change in premiums will be larger due to moral hazard and administrative costs.) And Reuters mentions higher premiums only vaguely, and as if insurers would bear that cost. Each article also repeats the administration's spin that spending more on preventive care would reduce health care costs, without mentioning that the Congressional Budget Office and other health care researchers dispute that claim.
Journalists need to be very careful with terms like "free" and "no cost."