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Joe Conason: Testing Next Year’s Lies Today

Republicans are already making distortions about health-care reform the cornerstone of the 2010 midterm campaign

Within hours after the House of Representatives approved health-care reform by a narrow margin, Republicans predicted retribution at the polls next fall. They promised to make every Democrat regret that historic vote as the first step toward the reversal of power in Washington. And as the current debate has proved, they aren’t going to let honesty become an obstacle.

Joe Conason
Joe Conason

For a preview of coming attractions, simply turn on the Fox News Channel or any right-wing radio talker, where the falsehoods of the 2010 midterm campaign are being field-tested today.

You can watch Dick Morris blather about the “death panels” that will terminate your mother and father while illegal immigrants are provided lavish care, and about how you will be put in jail for failing to purchase health insurance. You can hear Karl Rove complain that we will “beggar ourselves” by adding more than $1.4 trillion to the federal debt. You can listen to Frank Luntz claim that voters disdain reform because of “the cost to the deficit.”

These gentlemen have little expertise in health or economics, but much experience in distracting, misinforming and sometimes frightening the public. Aside from talking on television, that is their job. How little do they know — and how much do they simply fabricate?

It is safe to assume that Morris knows very well there are no death panels in any of the health-reform bills; that those bills expressly forbid coverage of illegal immigrants; and that none of them includes any provision to incarcerate citizens who lack insurance coverage. It is also reasonable to assume, based solely on the fiscal record of the Bush administration in which he served, that Rove never worries about budget deficits, government waste or gross corruption unless Democrats are in charge.

As for Luntz, he specializes in political prophecies that are self-fulfilling. When he says voters are infuriated by the cost of health-care reform, for instance, that merely indicates he is trying to make them feel that way. He will succeed — all three will succeed — only by drawing attention away from actual facts and figures.

So perhaps voters ought to listen instead to the Congressional Budget Office, which by contrast has earned a reputation for candor, accuracy and nonpartisan truthfulness. After painstaking analysis, the CBO estimated that the House health-care reform bill, known as the Affordable Health Care for America Act, would reduce the federal deficit by about $109 billion during the first 10 years after it takes effect. To repeat: The bill passed by the House Democrats on the evening of Nov. 7 “would yield a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $109 billion over the 2010-2019 period.”

The CBO experts also costed out the Senate Finance Committee bill and found that it would cut federal deficits by more than $80 billion during that first decade.

Those reassuring conclusions derive from other basic facts about reform that tend to be ignored or concealed. Reform will reduce wasteful spending by hundreds of billions of dollars annually and will depend for financing on excise taxes imposed on the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.

Much of the misinformation about the costs of reform comes from the belief — fostered by conservatives — that the government-run health plan known as the “public option” would impose a huge burden on the federal budget. So says Joseph Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut who has threatened to filibuster the bill.

Section 322 of the Affordable Health Care for America Act says clearly and concisely that people insured under the public option will pay premium rates “at a level sufficient to fully finance the costs of health benefits provided by the public health-insurance option; and administrative costs related to operating the public health-insurance option.” In short, the public option will involve no new federal expenditure.

Any bill that reaches the president’s desk will leave much to be desired, especially with respect to cost containment, preventive care and new systems of compensation to encourage improved results. But it should be judged according to real merits and defects — not the delusions and distortions that now dominate the debate.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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