WaPo's faulty "fact-check" of RyanCare

Washington Post “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler awards Rep. Paul Ryan two Pinocchios for statements like this:

There’s a lot of misinformation about what we are proposing and what we are not proposing. We’re saying: Save Medicare by reforming it for people who are 54 and below by working like a system just like members of Congress and federal employees have.

To claim that Ryan is misleading people about his plan, Kessler takes a page from the Politifact playbook, converting differences of opinion into factual disputes.

What’s Kessler’s beef?

Under a 1997 law, the government pays a set rate of 75 percent of the costs of the health plans selected by federal employees and members of Congress. The employee (and members of Congress) pick up the other 25 percent.

Ryan, in his quote, said the new Medicare would be “working like a system just like members of Congress and federal employees have.” But the comparison begins to break down once you consider the premium support payments. Ryan would peg the premium support to the consumer price index, a broad gauge that has been rising more slowly than have health care costs.

The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan arm of Congress, analyzed Ryan’s plan and estimated that by 2030, the government would pay just 32 percent of the health care costs, less than half of what the federal plan currently pays. The other 68 percent of the plan would have to be shouldered by the retiree. (The CBO estimated that if traditional Medicare stayed in place, the government would pay 70 to 75 percent of the costs.)

The CBO analysis also assumed that adding private insurance plans into the mix would raise administrative costs and would not keep medical inflation as low as traditional Medicare has done.

Kessler, in his role as “fact-checker” ought to understand that CBO estimates and assumption are not facts — they are estimates and assumptions. They are debatable:

Ryan disputes these assumptions. “We believe — based on experience — the competitive elements of patient-centered reform will exert downward pressure on the cost of a private plan, and that therefore the government’s share of the tab will be higher,” said Conor Sweeney, a spokesman for Ryan.

Sweeney said that the CBO overestimated the cost of adding a prescription drug plan to Medicare by 40 percent because its models underestimate the impact of competition and incentives. A recent study published by the Commonwealth Fund backs up this assertion, citing three examples, including the prescription drug plan, in which the CBO underestimated the savings from reforms.

“The agency has difficulty addressing the impact of multi­ple changes made simultaneously without historical precedent where there is an interaction effect among proposed changes,” wrote analyst Jon R. Gabel.

Kessler responds to the inherent uncertainties of projecting how complex policies play out this way:

Of course, some might argue that it is better for the official congressional scorekeeper to be conservative in its estimates, allowing for a pleasant surprise in the future, rather than leaving taxpayers with an unexpected bill.

At this point, Kessler is not checking facts or even assessing projections, but giving an argument about how the CBO ought to score policy. Moreover, Kessler’s argument does not account for how the CBO actually scores policy. For example, the CBO puts out an alternative fscal scenario, which most understand is more realistic than the budget projections it makes under the rules dictated by Congress. One might argue that the CBO frequently underestimates the cost of government entitlements and the savings to be achieved by more market-oriented approaches. But that’s an argument, not fact-checking.

In contrast, in assessing a January 2011 Congressional debate, here’s what the stalwart fact-checker had to say about the CBO numbers on ObamaCare:

In many ways, the focus on the numbers is silly. The CBO has a respectable track record, but CBO’s numbers are based on models, and models can be flawed. No one really knows exactly what the impact of legislative changes will be ten years from now, let alone how population growth, economic growth or other factors ultimately will affect the bottom line. It would be more logical to offer a range, but CBO is expected to produce an actual number.

Nevertheless, after downplaying the certainty of CBO’s numbers, Kessler later opined on GOP complaints about ObamaCare’s cost:

Dig beneath the numbers and Boehner and his Republican co-horts have a point that the figures are suspect. But this is a game that both parties have played, and crocodile tears now should not obscure the many times Republicans have resorted to the same tactics in the past. The CBO number is the playing field that both sides use. And Democrats (of whom Weiner is just one example) should not be perfoming such tricks with the numbers either.

There is something to be said for having a common playing field. However, the excessive gaming of CBO estimates to sell legislation will lead to a poisonous political process and likely to bad policy. As bad as it is for Kessler to confuse CBO estimates with facts, it is far worse when Congress does it.

Kessler ultimately gives away the game on CBO estimates of ObamaCare’s cost at the end of the January post:

The tenuous nature of these estimates makes it silly and counter productive to assert that the health care legislation ever was considered a deficit-reduction bill in the first place. It was a law designed to reduce the number of uninsured Americans and (with a little luck) rein in medical costs. Politicians should not pretend otherwise.

Of course, the entire Democratic establishment, from Pres. Obama on down, plus most of the media did pretend ObamaCare would reduce the deficit… and many still do. If you’re wondering whether the WaPo fact-checker addressed Democrats’ claims about ObamaCare before it was passed, wonder no longer: the WaPo fact-checker blog was on hiatus from the last day of the 2008 election campaign through January 9, 2011. Apparently, when the federal government is run entirely by a supermajority of Democrats, there is no need for fact-checking.