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FACT CHECK: Buyer beware in health debate

Monday - 7/2/2012, 12:20pm  ET

By CALVIN WOODWARD and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama promises nothing will change for people who like their health coverage except it'll become more affordable, but the facts don't back him up. Mitt Romney groundlessly calls the health care law a slayer of jobs certain to deepen the national debt.

Welcome to the health care debate 2.0. As the claims fly, buyer beware.

After the Supreme Court upheld the law last week, Obama stepped forward to tell Americans what good will come from it. Romney was quick to lay out the harm. But some of the evidence they gave to the court of public opinion was suspect.

A look at their claims and how they compare with the facts:

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OBAMA: "If you're one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance. This law will only make it more secure and more affordable."

ROMNEY: "Obamacare also means that for up to 20 million Americans, they will lose the insurance they currently have, the insurance that they like and they want to keep."

THE FACTS: Nothing in the law ensures that people happy with their policies now can keep them. Employers will continue to have the right to modify coverage or even drop it, and some are expected to do so as more insurance alternatives become available to the population under the law. Nor is there any guarantee that coverage will become cheaper, despite the subsidies many people will get.

Americans may well end up feeling more secure about their ability to obtain and keep coverage once insurance companies can no longer deny, terminate or charge more for coverage for those in poor health. But particular health insurance plans will have no guarantee of ironclad security. Much can change, including the cost.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the number of workers getting employer-based coverage could drop by several million, as some workers choose new plans in the marketplace or as employers drop coverage altogether. Companies with more than 50 workers would have to pay a fine for terminating insurance, but in some cases that would be cost-effective for them.

Obama's soothing words for those who are content with their current coverage have been heard before, rendered with different degrees of accuracy. He's said nothing in the law requires people to change their plans, true enough. But the law does not guarantee the status quo for anyone, either.

So where does Romney come up with 20 million at risk of losing their current plans?

He does so by going with the worst-case scenario in the budget office's analysis. Researchers thought it most likely that employer coverage would decline by 3 to 5 million, but the range of possibilities was broad: It could go up by as much as 3 million or down by as much as 20 million.

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ROMNEY: After saying the new law cuts Medicare by $500 billion and raises taxes by a like amount, adds: "And even with those cuts and tax increases, Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt, and pushes those obligations onto coming generations."

THE FACTS: In its most recent complete estimate, in March 2011, the Congressional Budget Office said the new health care law would actually reduce the federal budget deficit by $210 billion over the next 10 years. In the following decade, the law would continue to reduce deficits by about one-half of one percent of the nation's gross domestic product, the office said.

The congressional budget scorekeepers acknowledged their projections are "quite uncertain" because of the complexity of the issue and the assumptions involved, which include the assumption that all aspects of the law are implemented as written. But the CBO assessment offers no backup for Romney's claim that the law "adds trillions to our deficits."

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OBAMA: "And by this August, nearly 13 million of you will receive a rebate from your insurance company because it spent too much on things like administrative costs and CEO bonuses and not enough on your health care."

THE FACTS: Rebates are coming, but not nearly that many Americans are likely to get those checks and for many of those who do, the amount will be decidedly modest.

The government acknowledges it does not know how many households will see rebates in August from a provision of the law that makes insurance companies give back excess money spent on overhead instead of health care delivery. Altogether, the rebates that go out will benefit nearly 13 million people. But most of the benefit will be indirect, going to employers because they cover most of the cost of insurance provided in the workplace.

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