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Fudging health care numbers: a case study

I saw a curious headline at The Hill late yesterday, which seemed to conflict with everything we already know about the Affordable Care Act. "GAO: Health law will increase deficit if cost-cutting steps stop," it read.

What's this all about? I'll let Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) explain.

For those who can't watch clips online, the Alabama Republican proudly declared yesterday, pointing to the results of a study from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office:

"According to the GAO under a realistic set of assumptions the health care law will increase the deficit by 7/10th percent of GDP or roughly $6.2 trillion over the next 75 years. $6.2 trillion unfunded liability of the United States. In other words, the GAO reveals that the big tax increases in the bill come nowhere close to covering the massive spending."

That seems like a pretty big deal, doesn't it? For several years, literally every independent study of "Obamacare" has shown that the law will save the nation hundreds of billions of dollars. And yet, there was Sessions pointing to a GAO study that suggested the exact opposite. Indeed, the far-right senator boasted, "The results of this report confirm everything critics and Republicans have been saying about the health care bill and reveal the dramatic falsehoods that were used to push it to passage."

How's that possible? As Igor Volsky explained, "The Alabama senator asked the office to estimate what would happen if the cost containment provisions in the law -- the Independent Payment Advisory Board, excise tax on high-cost plans, and reductions in Medicare payments to providers -- are 'phased out over time' while the coverage provisions remain."

This is roughly the equivalent of the Boston Celtics' coach asking someone on his staff, "Figure out what our record would be if our opponents' points didn't count." Then, soon after, the coach called a press conference to declare, "Good news everyone! We're undefeated! And every game was a shutout!"

I'm not blaming the GAO. The agency did as the senator requested, publishing a report using the guidelines he demanded*, but Session's question is inherently ridiculous. It turns out, if we eliminate parts of the law that pay health care reform -- you guessed it -- there's no way to fully pay for health care reform.

By the same logic, Jeff Sessions can prove that my car is an ineffective method of transportation if he takes away its engine and wheels.

The point is, the Affordable Care Act is fully paid for -- and is actually one of the biggest pieces of deficit-reduction legislation in a generation -- precisely because it includes provisions that raise revenue and and contain costs. Sessions' argument seems to be that the costs go up if those elements are eliminated, which is true, but leads to the obvious question of why anyone would do that on purpose.

This is, in other words, one of the dumbest health care arguments to date -- and believe me, there have been a lot of dumb health care arguments. In order to get the word out about such transparent nonsense, Sessions would need willfully ignorant news organizations to run with this without even trying to understand the basics.

Did I mention that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, National Review and Drudge quickly echoed Sessions' ridiculous claim? Well, they did.

And this is why having credible policy arguments is so very difficult in 2013.

* Update: Republican staffers assure me that Sessions did not demand that the GAO use certain parameters, as had been reported elsewhere. It would appear, in other words, that Sessions simply manipulated the information on his own, without making specific requests to the GAO, in the hopes of misleading the public into believing, falsely, that the Affordable Care Act will increase the deficit. I'm glad we got this straightened out.