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July 16, 2012 11:06 AM Scott Walker’s Affordable Care Act Op-Ed and Lazy Mendacity

By Jonathan Bernstein

Politicians spin. They tell the best version of the story they can. That’s pretty normal, and reasonably healthy. What we’ve been seeing lately from many Republicans, however, is a sort of casual, sloppy dishonesty that just seems indifferent to, well, the truth.

So: Governor ScottWalker had an op-ed in the Washington Post that painted a devastating picture of the effects the Affordable Care Act would have on his state of Wisconsin, based on a study which he said was commissioned by his Democratic predecessor. Fortunately, he provided a link to the study – and it doesn’t say what he claims it said.

For example. Walker includes the study’s finding that “59 percent of people who buy their own health insurance will experience an average premium increase of 31 percent.” That is, in fact, what the study says. But it also says – and Walker omits – that the other 41 percent will receive a premium decrease averaging 56 percent. The full picture of the individual market isn’t a disaster, as Walker implies, but a mixed picture, with more “losers” than “winners,” but with bigger gains from the average winner than from the average loser. It may or may not be good policy, but it’s hardly an obvious disaster for the state.

Similarly, Walker writes that “For those who are covered by the small-employer group market, the average premium increase will be 15 percent.” That’s highly misleading. In fact, what the study says that 53 percent of those in that group market will have that 15 percent increase, while the other 47 percent will average a 16 percent decrease.

What else? Walker that “150,000 people will stop buying health insurance in the private sector and will instead become dependent on the government and taxpayers.” That’s at best a highly contentious reading of the study’s conclusion that 150,000 people will move from the traditional individual market to the new exchanges. After all, while the exchanges will be government run – here’s what the Massachusetts one set up by Romneycare looks like – the insurance bought on those exchanges will be just as “private sector” as the individual market that’s being phased out. Yes, the insurance companies will be far more heavily regulated – so that they can’t exclude anyone for pre-existing conditions, or cancel their policy, and they’ll have to spend most of their premiums on care – but it’s still private sector insurance.  Those regulations, and the tax credits available for modest-income families, are what Walker is calling “dependent on government.” Of course, insurance was already regulated, so there’s nothing there in principle that’s any different, and I doubt that Walker considers other tax credits to amount to dependence on government.

At least that one is based on something in the report he cites. I’m at a loss for how he comes up with “Approximately 122,000 parents, caretakers and pregnant women with an income of more than 133 percent of the federal poverty level will no longer be eligible for Medicaid.” I searched the study, but came up empty for “parents” or “caretakers” or “pregnant.” Even tried some synonyms, no luck. As for the 122K number: that does show up once, but it’s about the remaining uninsured, not people kicked off Medicaid. If Walker is correct about this one, and that may be the case, it’s not in the report he cites — and presumably all that would happen to people in that category would be they would shift from Medicaid to subsidized plans in the exchange, so it’s not clear they would be worse off.

I also can’t speak to Walker’s claims about the effect on “Wisconsin taxpayers.” The numbers he cites don’t appear in the report, although it’s certainly possible he’s calculating something based on the report’s numbers. If so, it can’t be found through the report’s references to taxes.

I should mention somewhere here: all this is on top of absolutely ignoring the report’s key finding that two-thirds of Wisconsin’s unemployed — 340,000 people — will move from uninsured to insured. Perhaps that’s not something that the Governor of Wisconsin thinks is a priority, but I suspect many of those 340,000 do.

Getting back to the numbers that really come from the study: look, it’s absolutely true that especially in the short run there are winners and losers with the Affordable Care Act. Because the law (as the study Walker cites says) moves insurers generally from setting premiums based on individual risks and towards charging against group risks, those who have more immediate health risks will be short-term winners, and those who don’t are short-term losers. There’s also going to be some disruption; some people might not like that, even if they wind up preferring the new to the old: transition costs count, too. And there’s nothing wrong with arguing over the law on that basis, although that static analysis misses plenty of arguments for reform (such as, for example, the advantage in knowing that if you move into a risky category at some point in your life — or if someone in your family does — that you’ll have some financial protection.

But that, of course, isn’t what Walker is doing in this column; he’s simply pulling out the bad numbers in a report that presents a very balanced picture.

The real question this suggests is: what’s the point? I think the answer to this is a kind of lazy mendacity that the Republican partisan press encourages. If falsehoods such as the apology tour, or Obama’s rejection of American exceptionalism, or ACA myths such as the 16K IRS agents and 10/6 are permanent fixtures once they get picked up by the Republican network, and nothing can be done to dislodge them, then there’s a major incentive for ambitious politicians to concoct their own. And, hey, look, it’s backed up (well, some of it, and only if you don’t look hard at all) by a real report!

Of course, a politician who really cares about the substance of the issue will try to learn the actual facts, and a politician who cares about engaging in a debate will avoid spewing garbage that’s easy for anyone who bothers to look to knock down. But it’s a lot easier to just feed the machine — the better to get your own gig on Fox News or your own radio show or your own quick and easy bestseller somewhere down the road. I promise that telling a few whoppers and getting called on it isn’t going to detract from those goals.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics ]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.