The debate: Some healthcare ‘facts’ that
shouldn’t stand

Reporters did good fact checking, but also left falsehoods on the table

There was no shortage of media fact checking after last week’s presidential debate, much of it focused on healthcare, much of it good. Still, reporters left a lot of healthcare “facts” on the table, unexamined, too. Let’s take a look.

The New York Times devoted seven graphs to accurately explaining why Obamacare is not, despite Mitt Romney’s assertions, a government takeover of healthcare. Glenn Kessler, the Pinocchio-dispensing fact-checker at The Washington Post, once again explained what the infamous “$716 billion Medicare cut,” another familiar Romney assertion, is all about. By now most in the media get it: The “cut,” mostly a reduction in Medicare spending growth, falls on providers—not on seniors, who won’t see any cuts to their basic benefits.

On WaPo’s Wonk Blog, Josh Hicks tackled Romney’s claim that no taxes were raised in Massachusetts to pay for reform, a claim that, as he put it, “deserves some context.” Cribbing details from The Boston Globe, Hicks noted that the state, in fact, had to increase tobacco taxes and levy an assessment against hospitals and insurers in order to fund provisions in the law. Romney has made that no-taxes claim before. On Fox News Sunday in late August, Romney claimed he passed health reform in the Bay State without raising taxes. CJR debunked the claim at the time.

From the Los Angeles Times came three posts. One pointed out that Romney’s claim—that the president’s promise that health reform would reduce health insurance premiums by $2,500 has not materialized—was true. Another post focused on Romney’s $716 billion claim, and the third made the point there is no government body that will decide what kinds of treatments patients get—Romney’s claims during the debate to the contrary. (The Independent Payment Advisory Board is supposed to advise Medicare on controlling costs, but the law specifically says the board cannot make “any recommendation to ration healthcare…or otherwise restrict benefits or modify eligibility criteria.”

NPR’s blog pretty much rehashed what other news outlets had already fact-checked. Politico went further, actually adding to the fact-checking literature that’s building up. It checked Obama’s claim that shifting Medicaid funding to the states through a block grant was “potentially a 30 percent cut in Medicaid over time.” That’s true, Politico said.

But eager beavers in fact-checking land missed some big ones— Romney whoppers, mostly—and they still need to be addressed.

For starters: toward the end of he debate, Romney explained how he got reform passed in Massachusetts:

We didn’t put people in a position where they’re going to lose the insurance they had and they wanted. Right now the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) says up to 20 million people will lose their insurance as Obamacare goes into effect next year. And likewise a study by McKinsey & Company of American businesses said 30 percent of them are anticipating dropping people from coverage.

Whoa! That needs some serious fact checking. CJR examined it back in March, and found the McKinsey study was flawed and had been immediately discredited by the policy community. In fact, McKinsey walked back its study, saying it “was not intended as a predictive economic analysis of the impact of the Affordable Care Act.”

And when we checked on the CBO study, we learned that the estimate of 20 million people losing employer coverage was a worst-case scenario, which the CBO said wasn’t likely to materialize. These errors, we reported, have not stopped some in the press from repeating them. Nor certain presidential candidates either, it seems.

But for me the biggest whopper of all kind of hides in plain sight. It was Romney’s remark that the US health system “has produced the best health records in the world.” Old canards don’t die easily. Shortly before the debate, pollster Humphrey Tayor spoke to a meeting of New York health reporters and left them with some dismal stats about how bad the system really is.

This one stands out, Taylor said: deaths preventable by medical care—that means deaths that could have been prevented had care been available. In 1998, the US ranked 15th out of the 19 countries studied. In 2003, the US ranked 19th, dead last in the group. There are, unfortunately, many more troubling stats about problems in our healthcare system, from many sources, such as the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation or OECD, which has comprehensive comparisons on healthcare outcomes between various nations.

It’s time to reexamine the trusty $716 billion cut claim, too, because the GOP is putting a new twist on the argument, as Romney did during the debate—a contention that this cut in future spending to providers will cut Medicare benefits to seniors, in the end, on the grounds that providers with reduced fees will cut services. In the debate, Romney claimed that some 15 percent of hospitals and nursing homes and 50 percent of doctors say they won’t take any more Medicare patients “under that scenario.”

Since older people make up the bulk of hospital and nursing home admissions and physician practices, that sounds absurdly high, and the press should check it out.

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Trudy Lieberman is 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. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,