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FACT CHECK: Obama and Medicare premiums

Wednesday - 1/29/2014, 4:20pm  ET

CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It seems to be something of an occupational hazard for President Barack Obama: When he talks about his health care law, he's bound to hit a fact bump sooner or later.

So it went Tuesday night, when he declared Medicare premiums have stayed flat thanks to the law, when they've gone up. As for an even bigger theme of his State of the Union address, the president's assertion that "upward mobility has stalled" in America runs contrary to recent research, while other findings support him.

A look at some of the facts and political circumstances behind his claims, along with a glance at the Republican response to his speech:

OBAMA: "Because of this (health care) law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more just because she's a woman. And we did all this while adding years to Medicare's finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors."

THE FACTS: He's right that insurers can no longer turn people down because of medical problems, and they can't charge higher premiums to women because of their sex. The law also lowered costs for seniors with high prescription drug bills. But Medicare's monthly premium for outpatient care has gone up in recent years.

Although the basic premium remained the same this year at $104.90, it increased by $5 a month in 2013, up from $99.90 in 2012. Obama's health care law also raised Medicare premiums for upper-income beneficiaries, and both the president and Republicans have proposed to expand that.

Finally, the degree to which the health care law improved Medicare finances is hotly debated. On paper, the program's giant trust fund for inpatient care gained more than a decade of solvency because of cuts to service providers required under the health law. But in practice those savings cannot simultaneously be used to expand coverage for the uninsured and shore up Medicare.

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OBAMA: "Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled."

THE FACTS: The most recent evidence suggests that mobility hasn't worsened. A team of economists led by Harvard's Raj Chetty released a study last week that found the United States isn't any less socially mobile than it was in the 1970s. Looking at children born between 1971 and 1993, the economists found that the odds of a child born in the poorest 20 percent of families making it into the top 20 percent hasn't changed.

"We find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s," the authors said.

Still, other research has found that the United States isn't as mobile a society as most Americans would like to believe. In a study of 22 countries, economist Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa found that the United States ranked 15th in social mobility. Only Italy and Britain among wealthy countries ranked lower. By some measures, children in the United States are as likely to inherit their parents' economic status as their height.

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OBAMA: "We'll need Congress to protect more than 3 million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer.  But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible."

THE FACTS: Cutting rules and regulations doesn't address what's holding up most transportation projects, which is lack of money. The federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in August without action. To finance infrastructure projects, Obama wants Congress to raise taxes on businesses that keep profits or jobs overseas, but that idea has been a political nonstarter.

The number of projects affected by the administration's efforts to cut red tape is relatively small, said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank. "The reason most of these projects are delayed is they don't have enough money. So it's great that you are expediting the review process, but the review process isn't the problem. The problem is we don't have enough money to invest in our infrastructure in the first place."

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OBAMA: "More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage."

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