Marc Caputo

April 6, 2014

Marc Caputo: Figuring and politicking with Obamacare figures

Charlie Crist’s reasons to embrace Obamacare has hit the 7.1 million mark.

Charlie Crist’s reasons to embrace Obamacare has hit the 7.1 million mark.

That’s the number of people who selected an Affordable Care Act plan by the close of the enrollment period last Monday, according to the Obama administration.

The better-than-forecast numbers gave Democrats like Crist an unexpected boost, especially after the sign-up website was essentially nonfunctional when it debuted in October.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about how many of the 7.1 million actually are enrolled in individual-market healthcare plans (there’s a different between selectees who haven’t paid and those who have paid and enrolled).

Still, 7.1 million is the official number for now.

And politics is about simple things, simple numbers. Like insurance, politics is a numbers game.

Crist had already made the calculation that he wasn’t going to run from Obamacare, unlike Democrats who face more-conservative electorates in other races. Crist wants to use the unpopular Affordable Care Act’s popular positions to strike at the governor.

“The truth is Rick Scott wants to take us back to the days of insurance companies denying coverage for preexisting conditions, where women are charged more than men, and lifetime caps limit care, even for kids with cancer,” Crist’s campaign says in a new Web ad.

Scott’s campaign said he favors tax credits to make health-insurance more portable, but it wouldn’t explain how that affected coverage for preexisting conditions.

Crist’s ad was issued in response to a $2 million TV ad buy from Scott that takes the Democrat to task for saying Obamacare’s “great.”

Scott’s ad uses its own numbers to press the attack.

“News reports say 300,000 health plans canceled,” the ad narrator says as a doctored front page of the St. Augustine Record appears with a headline that says “300,000 Health Plans in Florida Canceled.”

That’s not the headline that actually appeared Oct. 23, according to a search of Google and the Nexis news database that show the headline read: “Florida Blue to cancel 300,000 policies over Obamacare.”

There’s a difference between the past and future tenses. And, it turns out, Florida Blue didn’t cancel them.

At Obama’s request, those who had health plans that didn’t comply with the ACA’s robust coverage requirements are allowed to keep those plans for a year. Florida Blue says 60,000 people chose to go into Obamacare plans anyway. Those who give up their current plan will likely do the same in the future.

But it’s not as if people will lose health insurance. Obamacare is making more people get health insurance (albeit some or many might pay a higher price because they’re getting more government-mandated coverage).

There’s a reason PolitiFact Florida rated Scott’s claim mostly false. Another falsehood PolitiFact Florida flagged in the ad also involved a doctored quote: “Obamacare will drive 2.5 million Americans out of the workforce.”

The ad cites a February Congressional Budget Office report for the comment. But CBO never said that. The quote Scott attributed to CBO comes from a Forbes editorial written by an avowed Obamacare hater.

In decidedly dry and nonpartisan language, CBO’s 175-page report said the cumulative work hours for all jobs in the United States could be reduced by 2.5 million in 2024 because Americans could choose to work less, in part because their health-insurance won’t be tethered to their employment. Also, Obamacare has an “implicit tax” on earning more, so some won’t work more because they don’t want to lose health-insurance subsidies.

Scott didn’t mention the CBO report Monday during a Miami stop. And he was far more careful than his ad in talking about the 300,000 number. “We’ve got 300,000 individuals who were told last fall they were going to lose their insurance,” he said.

He also mentioned Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare Advantage, a privately run program that serves 1.4 million Floridians. It was supposed to be cheaper than traditional Medicare, but it’s more expensive on a per-recipient basis.

“They’re raiding Medicare Advantage to pay for Obamacare,” Scott said. “It’s not right for our seniors. They’re losing their doctors. They’re losing their hospitals.”

A day later, Scott’s fellow Republicans in the U.S. House took some of the oomph out of that talking point when budget chairman Paul Ryan proposed a spending plan that keeps the very same Medicare Advantage cuts that Republicans have been railing against. Ryan told reporters, however, that his Medicare Advantage cuts differ from Obamacare’s because his would shore up Medicare overall.

Still, a reduction is a reduction.

Despite all the posturing of, and figuring by, Republicans and Democrats, it’s still too early to definitively say if Obamacare is overall a success or a failure.

As of March 1, the Obama administration reported that about 442,000 Floridians of about 990,000 eligible for individual market plans signed up in Florida (the vast majority of Floridians and Americans are insured through employer group plans that aren’t as central to the Affordable Care Act).

How many ACA selectees didn’t have insurance before? How many are paying more? How many are paying less or get subsidies? How many Floridians signed up from March 1 to the March 31 deadline?

The Obama administration can’t or won’t say. At least not yet.

The administration’s tight lips or ignorance about these basic data rightly leads to questions about how it was so certain last week that there are 7.1 million plan selectees — a jaw-dropping 69 percent increase in a month nationwide.

For a president who won PolitiFact’s lie of the year over Obamacare (“if you like your health plan, you can keep it”), Obama is tough to believe when it comes to his signature health law.

But Scott’s ads aren’t a hallmark of truth, either.

It’s likely Obamacare’s selectee figure would be far higher. But Republican-run states like Florida and Texas (which have the highest uninsured rates of about 25 percent) have fought the law at nearly every turn. They’ve also refused to expand Medicaid, which could give health insurance to as many as 1 million in Florida.

Despite the recent positive news for Obamacare and the number of Floridians who could benefit from it, those who hate the law appear more numerous and more ready to vote than those who love it in Florida.

Some polls indicate the unpopular law is becoming more popular nationwide.

But we’ll have to wait on more numbers, both in public-opinion surveys and Obamacare enrollment before the picture is clear.

Meanwhile, for all the misleading presentation of figures in his ads, Scott has perhaps the most-important figures on his side: $45 million. That’s the amount of money he likely has to spend so far on his campaign. He’s trying to raise $100 million.

Crist hopes to get half of that. Fellow Democrat Nan Rich has struggled to fundraise for more than year. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie is a wild card in the race.

Money like Scott’s buys wall-to-wall ads that are seen by far more voters, who spend far more time watching TV or looking at Facebook than they do reading newspapers or PolitiFact.

And no matter how you figure it, $45 million is a bigger number than 7.1 million.

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