CBO report about to make health care debate a lot uglier

Let's see...which shirt will ensure that my views are taken seriously?

Let's see...which shirt will ensure that my views are taken seriously?

First of all, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Newt Gingrich is a big Skynyrd fan. Second of all, get ready to have a lot more completely unproductive arguments over facts with guys like this, because the Congressional Budget Office has released a report projecting that the proposed health care reform bill will have little impact on insurance premiums. Kind of. It turns out that the math on this one was really hard—so hard that the CBO initially refused to make an estimate. On the insistence of Senators Max Baucus and Evan Bayh, though, they’ve been crunching numbers for weeks now, pausing only to drink Mountain Dew and watch Buffy on Netflix, and they have concluded that, um, a bunch of stuff will change. But not really. The upshot of the CBO report is that premiums for individuals in large-group employer plans—that is, those in pools of 50 or more—would see a +1% to -2% change by 2016, while those in small-group employer plans would see their premiums drop by zero to 3%. Individuals who purchase policies for themselves—my unemployable ass, for example—will see the largest difference, with a projected 10 to 13% increase in premiums. Yes, increase. That’s a little misleading, though, because A) the cheapest policies currently offered to individuals fall below proposed minimum standards, so people paying higher premiums will also get better coverage and B) federal subsidies will reduce the actual cost to individuals by about 50%. Are you confused yet? The health care debate just got a little more complex, and that’s a boon to Republicans.

The Congressional Budget Office is basically the Oracle at Delphi in this situation, and its pronouncements can be interpreted as either side sees fit. As Timothy Noah at Slate points out, all Chuck Grassley needs to say is “individual Americans will see a ten percent increase in premiums” to become the Where’s the Beef? lady of GOP sound bites. Sure, I’m currently paying $107 a month for a plan that doesn’t cover doctor visits or antibiotics—and puts a $35,000 deductible on my surgically-enhanced left shoulder—and the Senate plan would have me paying $60 a month for much better coverage, but the phrases “federal subsidy” and “required minimum coverage” are not going to capture anyone’s heart. The simpler your analysis, the worse the CBO report sounds. And if we’ve learned one thing from the six-months-and-counting health care debate, it’s that America loves a simplistic argument.

Until such time as the snake that operates Sarah Palin can find something in there about senior citizens maybe having to work as salt miners to get Medicare, the CBO report is a first-come, first-spin-to-one’s-own-purposes affair. Newser, for example, declares that “Most premiums won’t rise under health bill,” and seems to be reporting the story from an alternate universe in which the fear of rising premiums was the centerpiece of Republican objections. Meanwhile, the vampires over at the American Spectator burst from their sarcophagi to announce, “Senate health care bill would raise premiums 10-13 percent.” The lead for that story claims that the Democrats’ plan would raise premiums by “more than $2,000” for family policies, a number apparently arrived at by calculating a family of four in which each person, including the children, bought his or her own health insurance policy. No mention is made of any federal subsidies until the end of the article, when, in a 200-word apology, the author acknowledges that he’s left some facts out and assures us he’s gone back to “tweak the language.”

The language is going to see a whole lot of tweaking over the next few days, and I think we can expect to see the robotic lions of the GOP form Voltron and bellow “Ten to thirteen percent increase!” with one voice. As a claim that can be refuted only by reading a CBO report or listening to a multi-sentence explanation, it’s destined for rhetorical greatness. We seem to have reached a point in our national discussion of health care reform where any new information muddies the waters. More than any political debate in recent memory, health care reform has been an argument over facts. As a nation, we’ve managed to eschew the moral and efficient issues in favor of heated debate over what the proposed legislation actually says. Now we have yet another study to half-quote, on top of the lingering specter of death panels and cuts to Medicare. The appeal to ignorance may turn out to be the strongest tactic in the health care debate, and the more facts we have, the stronger it becomes.

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