CNN's Blitzer Lets Burwell's Obamacare Excuses and Half-Truths Slide

October 25th, 2016 10:15 PM

Obama administration officials, their designated flacks, and even President Barack Obama himself have spent the past several days defending the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Tuesday afternoon, Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell visited CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who simply let his guest say what she wanted to without answering his questions, spouting half-truths and falsehoods in the process.

Blitzer's conduct was an unsurprising yet still disappointing departure from what Ezekiel Emanuel, one of Obamacare's two original architects, was forced to endure in an interview with Fox Business's Maria Bartiromo on Friday. As seen in a Sunday NewsBusters post, Emanuel's Friday snow-job attempt was such a failure that Bartiromo bitterly asserted that he was creating a "rainbows and puppy dogs" portrayal of a program that has been "a huge disappointment across the country."

The first of two videos in this post shows Blitzer citing the large Obamacare plan increases, and Burwell providing a classic misdirection of an answer which contends that inflation in employer plans has been very low:

Transcript (bolds are mine throughout this post):

WOLF BLITZER: All right, let's talk about this average of, what, 22%, increase what we call the benchmark Silver Plan for people who use the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Why is the price marketed as this Affordable Care Act skyrocketing right now?

SYLVIA BURWELL: So I think what's important is actually what the consumer pays when asking a question like that. And when we think about the consumer and most of your viewers, 150 million people in the United States have employer insurance. And in the last six years, five of those years have seen the slowest growth in premiums that are on record. So for 150 million people, this does not impact them.

For all the folks that are on Medicare out there, in terms of that number of about 55 million people on Medicare, this does not impact them. For the 70 million in Medicaid, it doesn't. For the 11 million in the marketplace, 85 percent of those folks actually have the tax credits or subsidies that help them, and those subsidies are designed to move as premiums move. So for those folks, they will be insulated from those changes.

Burwell obviously didn't answer the question. We know nothing more about why "the price ... is skyrocketing" after her non-answer.

Her point about employer plan premiums may be correct, but the reason premium hikes haven't been all that large is that Obamacare normalized the idea of plans with excruciatingly high deductibles. One indicator of that trend can be seen in a graph found at the Kaiser Family Foundation's annual Employer Health Benefits Survey:


As seen above, the percentage of plans with deductibles for single coverage of $1,000 or more has almost tripled in the past eight years, going from 18 percent to 51 percent. Inflation during that period barely dents the impact of that change. Obviously, many employer deductibles have ballooned to levels that are multiples of $1,000. Though the trend was underway before the Obama era, it has accelerated during Obama's tenure, because employers began comparing their coverage to Obamacare plans in their plan design decisions, and have adjusted them accordingly.

Burwell's celebration of the fact that 85 percent of those on the exchanges are getting subsidies really means that taxpayers have been on the hook to some extent for at least part of the premium cost for the vast majority of participants. In other words, participants are "insulated," but taxpayers aren't. What a deal — and don't even get me started on the five-figure and above annual premiums people in their 50s and early 60s often have to pay if they don't qualify for subsidies.

The second video has Blitzer inexplicably asking Burwell if the administration has failed to keep Obama's "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan" promise. That was such an obvious lie that even Politifact tagged Obama's serially made promise the 2013 "Lie of the Year." Burwell also jumped on the opportunity to make the administration's oft-cited but incredibly shaky claim that 20 million more Americans now have healthcare coverage:


BLITZER: I know you've got to run, but very quickly, whatever happened to, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan," "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor"? Those were promises made six years ago, but you haven't been able to live up to that. Right?

BURWELL: You know, with regard to folks, many of the people we've seen the drop in uninsured be 20 million folks. And for those people, they didn't have insurance before the Affordable Care Act. So for 20 million Americans, they didn't have that insurance, and now they have that insurance, and they have choices.

In addition, what I would say is, there are many tools that we are providing and that's one of the things that will be continuing to improve in this open enrollment, are the tools so you can go on and you can shop by doctor. You can shop by drugs in terms of if there are certain prescriptions you take. And so in terms of increasing the choice and increasing the ability to even have plans, if you had any pre-existing conditions. And for those millions of American who have coverage that didn't before, they're certainly in a place that is much different.

Once again, Burwell didn't answer Blitzer's question. Of course she couldn't have said anything but, "You know, Wolf, we weren't able to keep that promise, and we knew that from the very start." But again, Blitzer just let a non-answer slide.

Burwell's core misdirection here is her claim that 20 million more Americans have coverage. An Investor's Business Daily editorial earlier this month successfully tore that claim apart, but needs a supplement I'll provide after I present excerpts from that editorial:

... (Hillary Clinton made a second presidential debate) claim that "20 million got insurance who didn't have it before." This went unchallenged by every fact-checker sifting through the debate, even though it's not true.

First, consider that the 20 million figure came from March 2016 report issued by the Obama administration itself, which has a huge vested interest in making ObamaCare look like a success.

Under normal circumstances, this sort of glaring conflict of interest would prompt reporters to take such a boast with a grain of salt. Instead, they've accepted it as gospel truth.

... Where Gallup's survey found an uninsured rate of 13.1% among those 18-64, the administration's adjustments changed that to 11.5%.

As a result, a good chunk of the 20 million number cited by Obama and the press comes from these mysterious data adjustments.

... (But) The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that the number dropped by 8.7 million between 2013 and 2014. The Census Bureau says it declined by 12.8 million from 2013-2015. The Congressional Budget Office figures that the uninsured fell by 17 million in 2015. (Note: I believe IBD meant "from 2013 to 2015" for the CBO — Ed.)

Most of the gains in coverage, it's worth noting, came from ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion ...

... much of that (alleged 20 million) increase wasn't due to the law, but to the fact that millions of people have gained employment over the past three years.

... We've complained many times in this space that "fact-checking" by journalists is often just a way for them to disguise opinion journalism. The fact that none of the fact-checkers reviewing Sunday's debate noticed Clinton's phony 20 million number is a case in point.

The fact is that the Obama administration doesn't really know how many people Obamacare has insured, and it should know exactly.

Any other insurance business would compile this kind of data routinely, but HHS apparently doesn't, either because it can't, or it doesn't want to. Instead, it relies on a poll, and even then, as seen above, fudges it. From all appearances, this is breathtaking incompetence, and indicates that the back-office problems which gained visibility during Obamacare's original rollout three years ago have never been solved.

Imagine a CEO at a private company asking the CFO how many customers a company has, and the CFO responding that he or she will have to engage a polling company to find out. That CFO would be on the street in minutes.

Wolf Blitzer could have just as easily saved Sylvia Burwell the time and trouble of appearing and read an emailed HHS press release.

Cross-posted at