Congressional Budget Office (CBO) numbers released at the end of last week gave the House Democrats the ammo they were looking for: their revised health bill would reduce the deficit by about $138 billion in the first ten years, and by $1.2 trillion in the second decade. What’s more, the total package comes in at $940 billion—below the magic $1 trillion mark that Team Obama had been targeting. Kind of sounds like the $9.99 trick merchants use, doesn’t it? A jubilant Nancy Pelosi called the bill “a triumph for the American people in terms of deficit reduction.”

Deficit reduction is not to be confused with lowering the cost of the nation’s total medical tab. Without explanation, it’s easy for those Americans to confuse the two, given all the talk about making health care affordable and reducing the price of medical care. Headlines like this one in The New York Times—“Democrats Gain With a Promise on Health Costs”—don’t help. “The CBO calculates the impact of health reform on the government budget not on the cost of medical care,” Yale professor emeritus Theordore Marmor told me. “The savings are in the public sector. The evaluation is inconsistent with the way the problem (sky-high medical costs) has been defined.”

That raises a question that will be all but obscured in the hoopla over the passage of the bill Sunday. With the government paying less for medical care under the Medicare program, will doctors and hospitals simply raise their prices to make up for any fee shortfalls from the federal government?

The CBO’s numbers, as good as they may be, are simply projections based on what is known at the moment the number crunchers do the crunching. “False precision of this produces illusory forecasts which distort sensible conversation about what we can reliably say,” Marmor continued.

Kudos to the NewsHour for offering viewers a sensible conversation, touching on Marmor’s concerns and presenting new thoughts here and there. The program was a face-off between former Obama official Neera Tanden, now at the Center for American Progress, who spun the rosiest picture of the CBO numbers, and Gail Wilensky, an old Medicare hand, who often gives more conservative points on shows like these.

Right off the bat, Wilensky acknowledged that CBO’s numbers are well regarded as unbiased but noted they are “frequently wrong.” She further explained that, when it calculates its estimates, the CBO must look at what is in current law and nothing else. What was missing from its estimates, she said, was the government’s forthcoming gift of $230 billion to the doctors. Congress has delayed bestowing its gift for political reasons, perhaps because it is an amount that is almost twice the projected savings in the law’s first ten years of operation.

The doctors, as Campaign Desk has reported, are supposed to have their fees cut by 21 percent, as part of a deficit reduction plan mandated by Congress over a decade ago. But each time the cuts were to take effect, physicians mobilized and staved them off. Now the Senate has postponed repeal of the cuts until the end of April, well after the legislation will be signed into law. A very comfy cover for the pols, no?

But word is leaking out. Wilensky told NewsHour viewers:

The reason it’s so important is, so much of the savings is coming out of Medicare payment reductions, that Congress is getting every single penny they think politically they can get out of Medicare, but they’re not paying for the fix to physicians. That ought to be regarded as a very serious problem.

Apparently, it is so serious that a memo obtained by Politico told the Dems:

Do not allow yourself (or your boss) to get into a discussion of the details of CBO scores and textual narrative. Instead, focus only on the deficit reduction and number of Americans covered.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.