Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Glenn Beck's disparagement of RomneyCare

PolitiFact continues to fact-check non-literal language as though it is literal. A bit like the way some atheists try to find contradictions in the Bible.

The issue:

Glenn Beck said that Mitt Romney's healthcare plan is bankrupting the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
And then there's former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who Beck said "opened the tent and gave you government health care that is now bankrupting the state."

Yeah, he said it. The hotlink should lead to the video. The embed shows the latest from Beck, which would not help us much.

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor


Hyper-literalist Catharine Richert handled the investigation of Beck.
In many ways, the Massachusetts health care model mirrors a plan lawmakers are considering on Capitol Hill, so we wondered whether the mandate could be the budget-buster Beck claims it to be.
If we were to look for a potential motive for PolitiFact to fault Beck, the fact that Romney's plan is something of a template for the federal plan might fit the bill.

Richert goes on to provide some details about the Massachusetts plan. Sure enough, it features mandated coverage and an exchange system along the lines of federal reform proposals.

It gets more interesting when Richert gets to the budget numbers:
Initially, the state projected that 215,000 people would eventually be enrolled in the program at the cost of $725 million. By 2007, enrollment had reached 80,000 and six months later, the number had doubled to 158,000 people. In 2008, enrollment peaked at more than 177,000 people. Currently, the state is expecting to spend about $880 million on Commonwealth Care in the coming budget year; that's about 3.3 percent of the state's $27 billion budget.
Richert probably intends the reader to focus on Commonwealth Care representing about 3.3 percent of the Massachusetts budget for the current year. I was drawn to the other data, however. The cost of subsidizing insurance for 177,000 people exceeded the expected cost of subsidizing 215,000 people. Richert may have intended to allay concerns about rising costs by saying that enrollment "peaked" at more than 177,000. But that is simply poor word choice. Enrollment has not peaked. It exceeded 177,000 by 2008 and is expected to keep rising. The New York Times put it this way:
Thanks to new taxes and fees imposed last year, the health plan’s jittery finances have stabilized for the moment. But government and industry officials agree that the plan will not be sustainable over the next 5 to 10 years if they do not take significant steps to arrest the growth of health spending.
(bold emphasis added)
I don't know what else Beck needs other than the above to support his statement. After all, "bankrupting" indicates an ongoing process. It seems contrived for Richert to test the claim simply in terms of current budget numbers. Isn't unsustainable growth in costs a fairly obvious equivalent to "bankrupting"?

The most notable trend in the Massachusetts health care, largely ignored by Richert, is the rapid rise in per capita costs. Massachusetts residents are paying very high prices for their health insurance.

Richert found one card to play. A report she cites from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation claims that costs of the program will drop for fiscal year 2009 (though still substantially exceeding projections). The report also indicates that enrollment in the subsidized insurance program began to drop from a peak of 177,000 in 2009. That probably accounts for the language Richert uses implying that the decrease represents a trend (correction: or, more properly, that the number of enrollees would not continue to increase in subsequent years).

The president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation ends up as Richert's star witness:
So, while the program has become more expensive, it has not been the budget-buster that Beck suggests. We asked experts whether the state would still be facing a $5 billion deficit if the program hadn't been put into place, and the resounding answer was "yes."

"Beck joins a long and growing list of uninformed commentators who allege that Massachusetts’ health reform is bankrupting the state," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a tax policy think tank. "He and they are absolutely wrong."

The state's budget deficit has been caused by an unprecedented collapse in state tax revenues, Widmer said.
With all due respect to Widmer, even a total collapse of state tax revenues will not cause a budget deficit if there is no government spending. It is thus disingenuous to pin the entire problem on a decrease in revenue. It must be acknowledged that the cost of Commonwealth Care has exceeded projections. That all by itself is enough to qualify Beck's statement as "Partially True."

Richert's supposed fact check makes a straw man of Beck's statement. She offers no indication that Beck was contacted to explain the intent of the statement. She apparently determined that for herself and proceeded accordingly.
So, while the state may be broke, it has little to do with the health care program Mitt Romney put in place over three years ago. Instead, tax revenue shortfalls and a growing reliance on unemployment benefits due to layoffs have put a massive budget burden on the state. As a result, we give Beck a False.
Again, it is assumed that Beck refers to the current budget shortfall in its entirety. The entire case against Beck rests on an uncharitable interpretation of his statement. And if Commonwealth Care enrolls another 200,000 people next year and doubles the current budget deficit, you can bet that PolitiFact will not revisit the issue.

The grades:

Catherine Richert: F
Bill Adair: F

Nov. 14, 2009: Removed an extra "that" and softened a criticism of Richert in accordance with the demands of logic.

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