The annual unveiling of its "Lie of the Year" award garners PolitiFact more attention than anything else. Hopefully, it will garner so much attention that people will recognize this award, which is supposed to improve political discourse, instead degrades it.
PolitiFact's past three Lies of the Year have been about health care. Not one of them was a lie.
A lie is when a speaker says something that he knows or believes to be false, for the purpose of deceiving others. None of these supposed Lies of the Year even met the threshold test of being false. The first two (“death panels” and “ObamaCare is a government takeover”) were actually, demonstrably true.
The third and latest Lie of the Year---that “Republicans voted to end Medicare”---is arguably true: its veracity depends on what your definition of “Medicare” is. To seniors, Medicare means “the government helps me pay for health care.” The House Republicans' budget (a.k.a., the Ryan plan) would not end such federal assistance, and would arguably improve access to quality health care. To the Left, “Medicare” means the particular way the federal government helps seniors access health care: a single-payer system. The Ryan plan would end that single-payer system. My leftist friends are right and PolitiFact is wrong: from a certain and valid perspective, this claim is true.
Moreover, even if these three statements were false, the speakers believed them to be true. Therefore, they cannot be lies. Every single Lie of the Year award has gotten that basic fact wrong.
In the process, this award degrades political discourse by implicitly launching---an encouraging others to launch---ad hominem assaults on people who hold legitimate differences of opinion. PolitiFact should find a better way to attract readers.
I have been writing about the flaws in PolitiFact's business model for some time:
- Just Call Me Liar of the Year
- Why I’m Boycotting PolitiFact
- PolitiFact Just Asked Me to Be a Source, Again. I Declined, Again.
- PolitiFact Just Called, Again. I Declined to Help, Again.
I'm glad to see my friends on the Left have taken notice, though I regret the way it happened.
It would appear that I am the Liar of the Year.
The fact-checking journalists at PolitiFact.com gave their 2010 Lie of the Year award to the notion that ObamaCare is "a government takeover of health care," and in 2009 gave the same award to Sarah Palin's "death panels" claim. But as I explain in my latest column for Kaiser Health News, the fact-checkers left out a few facts. Read the column to find out what PolitiFact missed. Here's my conclusion:
From my vantage point, the evidence shows that ObamaCare is a government takeover of health care, and Sarah Palin's "death panels" claim was essentially true. If that makes me Liar of the Year, so be it.
But another way to look at it is this: PolitiFact has now misappropriated this award for two years in a row. Not only is each of these "lies" factually true, but -- and this is more important -- the people who made those statements believe them to be true, which means they fall short of the dictionary definition of a lie: "An assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive." There is simply no factual basis -- and no excuse -- for calling them lies.
PolitiFact's Lie of the Year award has proven as conducive to civil discourse as Rep. Joe Wilson's, R- S.C., dyspeptic "You lie!" outburst during one of President Obama's previous addresses to Congress. Rather than continue to poison the well by dispensing another award this year, PolitiFact should just let it lie.
PolitiFact should also revisit its evaluations of those two claims.
Something smells fishy here.
Today, the federal agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid released its estimates of national health expenditures in 2009. Interestingly, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services re-categorized about 6 percent of national health expenditures -- well over $100 billion -- from “government” to “private,” at the very moment that the government share of NHE appeared set to hit 50 percent.
Last year, CMS projected that government health spending would "account for more than half of all U.S. health care spending by 2012." But it looks like we were set to reach (have reached?) that milestone much sooner. See the below table, which I made using CMS's estimates from 2008 and Exhibit 5 (p. 16) from today's report.
Turns out, it was the private sector spending that $100 billion each year, not the government. Who knew?
This 6-percentage-point drop in government's share of health spending was apparently due to “the renaming of some service and payer categories." A footnote leads to a page on the CMS site that isn't active yet, so we can't see what was recategorized from government to private spending.
Exhibit 5 of today's report also reveals that total health care spending grew by 4 percent in 2009, while government health spending grew by 9.9 percent and private spending shrank by 0.2 percent. Indeed, today's report contains this money quote:
Federal health spending increased 17.9 percent between 2008 and 2009 .... In contrast, the shares of spending of households... private businesses... and state and local governments... fell by roughly one percentage point each between 2008 and 2009.
And the feds are the guys who say they're going to control health care costs!
I can’t say for sure that there’s something fishy going on here. But this re-categorization comes at an awfully convenient time for an administration struggling with public dissatisfaction over its, ahem, government takeover of health care. My spidey sense is tingling.
- "The law amounts to a 'government takeover' of health insurance and health care." The article's conclusion: "it falls far short of a government takeover." That conclusion rests largely on the fact that "Medical care will be provided by private hospitals and doctors." But as I explain in this study, "it is irrelevant whether we describe medical resources (e.g., hospitals, employees) as 'public' or 'private.' What matters—what determines real as opposed to nominal ownership—is who controls the resources." Obama health official Jeanne Lambrew acknowledges as much: "the government role in socialized medicine systems [can include] public financing of private insurance and providers." And as I concluded in this study, "Compulsory 'private' health insurance would give government as much control over the nation’s health care sector as a compulsory government program." I wonder if the article's authors spoke to anyone who raised this perspective.
- "The law will gut Medicare by cutting more than $500 billion from the program over 10 years; seniors will lose benefits and won't be able to keep their doctors." Conclusion: "The gutting of Medicare claim goes too far...What this means for seniors is a bit murkier." True enough: even if ObamaCare's implausible Medicare cuts take effect, they clearly would not "gut" Medicare. (BTW, click here or here for a politically sustainable way to restrain Medicare spending.) The authors also note that Medicare Advantage enrollees would lose some benefits. But when the article claims that ObamaCare will not eliminate any "basic" Medicare benefits, it neglects to mention that Medicare's chief actuary estimates that the law could cause 15 percent of hospitals, home health agencies, and other providers to stop accepting Medicare patients. If your hospital no longer accepts your Medicare coverage, is that not a benefit cut?
- "The law will cause 87 million Americans to lose their current coverage." Conclusion: "How true is it? Partly, at best. But evidence is limited." The House Republicans' Pledge to America claims that ObamaCare "will force some 87 million Americans to drop their current coverage." The word drop is a bit strong; it's more accurate to say that many Americans will have to switch to another plan, even if it's just a more-expensive version of their current plan. Indeed, HHS estimates that 69 percent of employer plans will have to do so by 2013. Yet some people are being dropped from their current health insurance. When Principal Financial Group leaves the market, its nearly 1 million enrollees will lose their current health plan. Industry analysts expect more such departures. Why no mention of that?
- "The law is driving up costs and premiums and will continue to do so over the next several years." Conclusion: "There may be very small increases initially." Here the article is kinder to ObamaCare than even ObamaCare's supporters are. May be? Even ObamaCare's supporters admit the law will increase premiums for some people. Very small increases? Even HHS estimates that the requirement that consumers purchase unlimited annual coverage could increase premiums for some by 7 percent. (There's no mention of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Connecticut, which says ObamaCare will increase premiums for some of its customers by nearly 30 percent.) And why only initially? Do the authors expect that there will be no premium increases when HHS eventually stops issuing waivers? Or when HHS sets a minimum level of coverage that Americans must purchase in 2014? Or that ObamaCare has solved the tragedy of the commons? For support, the article claims, "the Obama administration, citing [various] estimates...says the law isn't responsible for any increase greater than 1 to 2 percent." Actually, that's not what the administration says -- it's what they want you to think they're saying. Read this letter and other administration utterances carefully. They say "1-2 percent" when speaking of ObamaCare's average effect on premiums, and "minimal" when speaking of anything other than the average effect. (The administration's threshold for "minimal" is presumably somewhere north of 7 percent.)
- "The law's expansion of Medicaid will put massive pressure on state budgets at a time when many are already in crisis." Conclusion: "The impact will probably be small, but it's hard to say for sure." The article only cites figures generated by supporters of the law, who say the impact will be small. Why just mention that there are figures from the other side? Why not include them?
- "The new law uses tax dollars to pay for abortions." Conclusion: "Open to interpretation." This was a missed opportunity to examine two crucial questions. First, would federal insurance subsidies truly be segregated from the separate premiums that consumers in ObamaCare's exchanges would have to pay for elective-abortion coverage? Or would this just be an accounting gimmick? What would happen, for example, if there were more abortions than an insurer anticipated, and those separate premiums proved insufficient to pay for them? How would you keep one side of the ledger from spilling over into the other? Second, would the availability of federal subsidies for health insurance plans that make elective-abortion coverage available as a rider increase enrollment in those plans? If so, wouldn't that implicitly subsidize elective abortions? Rather than examine those questions, the article punted.
On the whole, I'd say this fact check may have been very kind to the new law.
The President has announced a government crackdown on Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The effort appears to be an attempt to make it easier for Americans to swallow the health care “reform” he’s trying to shove down their throats. As House Republican leader John Boehner correctly asked, “Why can’t we crack down on fraud without a big-government takeover of health care?”
As I’ve noted before, improper payments made by Medicare and Medicaid is may well be $50 billion more than the already appalling $100 billion annual figure the president cited. Administrative efforts to rein in fraud and abuse are welcome, but they won’t solve the huge and fundamental inefficiencies of these programs. Because the law requires government health care programs to quickly get payments out the door, Uncle Sam will always be engaged in a costly game of “pay and chase.”
The broader problem is that government programs aren’t subject to market discipline. Policymakers and administrators have little incentive to be frugal because they face few or no negative consequences when playing with other people’s money.
Most of us have noticed how good private companies can be at reducing fraud. I recently received a call about questionable charges on my Discover credit card. After quizzing me on a list of purchases made with my card in the past 24 hours, it became clear that someone had gotten control of my account. Discover immediately closed the account, opened an investigation, and removed me from any liability for the fraudulent charges.
What amazed me is that I only had about $300 worth of charges on my card. It’s not a big account and thus not a big money maker for Discover. Yet, within 24 hours of a string of suspicious charges, the company was right on top of it before I even realized anything nefarious was going on. Private markets don’t always work this well, but government programs almost never do.
What does it say that the American polity has consistently rejected a wholesale government takeover of health care for 100 years?
What does it say that public opinion has been consistently against the Democrats’ health care takeover since July 2009?
What does it say that Democrats are having this much difficulty enacting their health care legislation despite unified Democratic rule? Despite large supermajorities in both chambers of Congress, including a once-filibuster-proof Senate majority (see more below)? Despite an opportunistic change in Massachusetts law that provided that crucial 60th vote at a crucial moment? Despite a popular and charismatic president?
What does it say that 38 House Democrats voted against the president’s health plan?
What does it say that Massachusetts voters elected, to fill the term of Ted Kennedy, a Republican who ran against the health care legislation that Kennedy helped to shape?
What does it say that the only thing bipartisan about that legislation is the opposition to it?
What does it say that 39 senators voted to declare that legislation's centerpiece unconstitutional?
What does it say that health care researchers -- a fairly left-wing lot -- think the Senate bill is unconstitutional?
What does it say that the demands of pro-life and pro-choice House Democrats, each of which hold enough votes to determine the fate of this legislation, are irreconcilable?
What does it say that House Democrats are actually contemplating a legislative strategy that would deem the Senate bill to have passed the House -- without the House ever actually voting on it?
Given that ours is a system of government where ambition is made to counteract ambition, what does it mean that the only way to pass this legislation is for the House to trust that the Senate will keep the House's interests at heart?