Fact Check: The Health Care Summit

President Barack Obama, center, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, and others, is seen during their meeting for health care reform, as they met with Republican and Democratic leaders, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, in the Blair House across from the street from the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Beware of a politician quoting poll numbers.

That was one lesson from the White House health policy conference Thursday as lawmakers in both parties cherry-picked survey results, ignored contrary findings and presented public opinion, which is highly nuanced on these questions, as a slam-dunk.

Claims, counterclaims and statistics flew through the room in the daylong talkfest by President Barack Obama and lawmakers from both parties. Some didn't hold up to the facts. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada suggested his party hasn't been preparing to do an end-run around the normal legislative process to pass a health care bill, when in reality this option is very much in play. Obama squabbled with a Republican senator over what his initiative might do to health premiums, and had a superior command of the facts.

Live Blog: Tracking the Summit Point by Point
More Coverage of the Summit

A look at some statements in the meeting and how they compare with reality:

THE CLAIMS:

McConnell: "I think it is not irrelevant that the American people, if you average out of all of the polls, are opposed to this bill by 55-37. And we know from a USA Today-Gallup poll out this morning they're opposed to using the reconciliation device, the short-circuit approach that Lamar referred to that would end up with only bipartisan opposition, by 52-39."

Reid: "Last Monday, a week ago Monday, all over America, the results were run from a poll done by the Kaiser Foundation. It was interesting what that poll said. Fifty-eight percent of Americans would be disappointed or angry if we did not do health care reform this year - 58 percent. Across America, more than 60 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents want us to reform the way health care works. Is it any wonder?"

THE FACTS:

McConnell's device of averaging polls to come up with a precise result is dubious. Because polls are often taken at different times, with different sample sizes, margins of error and ways of wording their questions, combining them may not yield a valid result. In addition, polls often are paid for by people or groups with an interest in their outcome. So it depends on which polls are being averaged and numerous other factors.

The Republican leader and others on his side ignored a variety of findings in recent surveys, such as the one finding that most people want Washington to act on rising medical costs and shrinking coverage - and trust Obama and the Democrats more than Republicans to do it.

Even so, the Kaiser survey cited by Reid was hardly a cheer for what Democrats have come up with so far, although there was no telling that from his remarks. Less than one third wanted Congress to send Obama a final version of the legislation approved by the House and Senate.

More than 40 percent wanted Washington to put health care on hold or pull the plug. Overall, people were split 43-43 for or against health care legislation. That's in keeping with other surveys that have found Americans evenly divided or leaning against Obama's effort, even while liking some of the measures and wanting something done about the system.

THE CLAIMS:

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.: "The Congressional Budget Office report says that premiums will rise in the individual market as a result of the Senate bill."

Obama: "No, no, no, no. Let me - and this is an example of where we've got to get our facts straight."

Alexander: "That's my point."

Obama: "Here's what the Congressional Budget Office says: The costs for families for the same type of coverage that they're currently receiving would go down 14 percent to 20 percent. What the Congressional Budget Office says is that because now they've got a better deal, because policies are cheaper, they may choose to buy better coverage than they have right now, and that might be 10 percent to 13 percent more expensive than the bad insurance that they had previously."

THE FACTS:

Both are right, but Obama offered important context that Alexander left out.

The nonpartisan analysis estimated that average premiums for people buying insurance individually would be 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 under the Senate legislation, supporting Alexander's point. But the policies would cover more, and about half the people would be getting substantial government subsidies to defray the extra costs.

As the president said, if the policies offered today were offered in 2016, they would be considerably cheaper under the plan, even without subsidies. One big reason: Many more healthy young people would be signing up for the coverage because insurance would become mandatory. They are cheap to insure and would moderate costs for others.

Moreover, the analysis estimated that the people getting subsidies would see their costs cut by more than half from what they pay now.

THE CLAIMS:

Alexander called on Obama to "renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through" the bill with only Democratic votes. He was talking about a parliamentary process Congress can use called "budget reconciliation," which would prevent Senate Republicans from blocking health-care legislation. In response, Reid denied that was his intent, saying, "No one has talked about reconciliation."

THE FACTS:

Talk about the use of the reconciliation process, which Republicans view as an assault on their rights as the Senate minority, has been in the air for months, and Reid himself has been part of that conversation. In a Nevada political talk show, "Face to Face with John Ralston," Reid said on Feb. 19 that he planned to use the reconciliation process to pass a pared-down health-care bill. And answering reporters' questions about the process this week, Reid said Republicans "should stop crying about reconciliation. It's done almost every Congress, and they're the ones that used it more than anyone else." On the latter point, Reid was right.


THE CLAIM: Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sharply criticized the president for his failure to hold public health-care negotiations earlier. He noted that "eight times you said that negotiations on health care reform would be conducted with the C-SPAN cameras. I'm glad more than a year later that they are here. Unfortunately, this product was not produced in that fashion. It was produced behind closed doors."

THE FACTS: McCain is right. Thursday's session fulfilled a promise Obama broke before he kept it. Several times in the 2008 campaign Obama vowed to hold open negotiations in reworking health care. But once in office, Democrats in the White House and Congress conducted negotiations as usual, making multibillion-dollar deals with hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, other special interests - and each other - in private. And beyond Thursday's televised session, there is no indication Obama or the congressional Democrats plan further open talks.
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