FACT CHECK: Trump's False Claims On 'Medicare For All'

Oct 10, 2018
Originally published on October 10, 2018 8:03 pm

USA Today published an opinion column by President Trump Wednesday in which the president falsely accused Democrats of trying to "eviscerate" Medicare, while defending his own record of protecting health care coverage for seniors and others.

The column — published just weeks ahead of the midterm elections — underscores the political power of health care to energize voters. But it makes a number of unsubstantiated claims.

Here are 5 points to know

1. The political context: Health care has emerged as a dominant issue on the campaign trail in the runup to the November elections. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks congressional advertising, health care was the focus of 41 percent of all campaign ads in September, outpacing taxes (20 percent), jobs (13 percent) and immigration (9 percent). Democrats are particularly focused on health care, devoting 50 percent of their ads to the issue, but health care is also a leading issue in Republican commercials (28 percent), second only to taxes (32 percent).

Perhaps sensing that Democrats are gaining traction, Trump has decided to go on the attack, targeting the Democratic proposal known as "Medicare for All."

2. Cost of the plan: Trump claims that expanding the federal government's Medicare program would cost $32.6 trillion over a decade. But as Business Insider reports, that would actually be a discount compared with the nation's current health care bill.

Trump's figure was calculated by the libertarian Mercatus Center, but he fails to note that total health care spending under Medicare for All would be about $2 trillion less over the decade than currently projected. The federal government would pay more, but Americans on the whole would pay less.

Remember that the U.S. already spends far more per person on health care than does any other country. And when you count the tax break for employer-provided insurance, the federal government already pays about two-thirds of this bill. But because of the fragmented private insurance system, the government gets none of the efficiency or buying power that a single-payer system would provide.

3. Health care rationing: Trump claims — with no supporting evidence — that "the Democratic plan would inevitably lead to the massive rationing of health care. Doctors and hospitals would be put out of business. Seniors would lose access to their favorite doctors. There would be long wait lines for appointments and procedures. Previously covered care would effectively be denied."

Detailed implementation of any single-payer plan would of course be subject to substantial negotiation. But the Medicare for All bill drafted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., states explicitly that "Nothing in this Act shall prohibit an institutional or individual provider from entering into a private contract with an enrolled individual for any item or service" outside the plan.

4. Pre-existing conditions: Trump notes that as a candidate, he "promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions." In fact, Trump and his fellow Republicans tried — unsuccessfully — to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. GOP plans would leave it up to the states to craft alternative protections. In addition, Republican attorneys general have sued to overturn Obamacare's protections, and the Trump administration has declined to defend them.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade group for the insurance industry, warns that ending the Obamacare guarantee could result in hardship for the estimated 130 million Americans under 65 with pre-existing conditions.

"Removing those provisions will result in renewed uncertainty in the individual market, create a patchwork of requirements in the states, cause rates to go even higher for older Americans and sicker patients, and make it challenging to introduce products and rates for 2019," AHIP said in a statement in June.

5. Strength of Medicare: Trump writes that "Democrats have already harmed seniors by slashing Medicare by more than $800 billion over 10 years to pay for Obamacare. Likewise, Democrats would gut Medicare with their planned government takeover of American health care."

He is repeating a claim that was widely debunked during the 2012 election. The Affordable Care Act actually strengthened the solvency of Medicare, but it has since been weakened again by the GOP tax cut.

The president is trying to play on the fears of seniors — who vote in large numbers — with the claim that any effort to improve health security for younger Americans must come at their expense. But that is a false choice.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump is attacking Democrats over a plan to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. In an op-ed published today in USA Today, Trump says the Democrats' plan would hurt seniors. He made a similar claim last night at a campaign rally in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A majority of House Democrats have already signed up for a socialist health care plan that would obliterate Medicare and eliminate Medicare Advantage for 20 million seniors.

CHANG: All right. Fact-checkers have challenged the president's claims. And one of those fact-checkers is our very own Scott Horsley, who joins us now to set the record straight. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So we are just weeks away from the midterms now. Democrats are talking a lot about health care, too. Both sides are clearly focusing on this issue now.

HORSLEY: They are, Ailsa. You know, health care is an emotional issue. It taps into people's fears and vulnerabilities. It also taps into our pocketbooks in a big way. So it has long been a potent issue for mobilizing voters, especially older voters who are more likely to show up at the polling place. In the past, Republicans have campaigned against Obamacare. This year, Democrats think it's their turn. They're campaigning against GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. Fully half of the Democrats' campaign ads have been devoted to this issue. Here's Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: There is one issue above any other that is going to define the results in the November 6 election, and that is health care.

HORSLEY: And President Trump is apparently also sensing the political power of that argument. So he's mounting a counteroffensive with this critique of Medicare for all.

CHANG: So what is Trump saying about that program in particular, this idea, basically, of letting everyone get Medicare instead of having to pay for private insurance?

HORSLEY: The first thing the president says in his USA Today column is that it would carry an astonishing price tag - $32.6 trillion over a decade. Now, that sounds like a lot of money, Ailsa, and it is, but what the president leaves out is some important context, which is that our current health care system is on track to pay even more than that. We already have the costliest health care system in the world. And if you count tax breaks for the insurance that workers get on the job, the federal government already foots about two-thirds of the total bill. But we're not getting any of the efficiencies or the buying power that would come from replacing private insurance with a single-payer system.

CHANG: And how does the president explain why shifting to a single-payer regime would hurt senior citizens?

HORSLEY: He argues that Medicare for all would lead to rationing, that doctors and hospitals would be put out of business, that seniors would lose control of their health care. But he offers no evidence for those claims. He really seems to just be playing on generational fears that any effort to boost health security for younger Americans has to come at the expense of their seniors.

CHANG: OK. But realistically, what are the prospects ultimately for Medicare for all?

HORSLEY: Even if Democrats win in November, they're not going to have the power to pass Medicare for all over the president's certain veto. And like Obamacare and GOP plans to replace Obamacare, Medicare for all might not look so shiny and bright when you actually have to debate the details of the plan.

CHANG: Sure.

HORSLEY: But if we're going to have that debate, Ailsa, it's probably useful to do so with facts, not fear. And, unfortunately, the president's op-ed column today doesn't really contribute to that.

CHANG: OK. Finally, the president has repeatedly said that he has kept his promise to protect people with pre-existing conditions. Is that true?

HORSLEY: He has made that promise repeatedly, but, in fact, he and his fellow Republicans have tried to unwind the protections in Obamacare. And they've proposed replacing them with unspecified state-level guarantees. The insurance industry has warned that could destabilize the market, create a patchwork of state regulations and raise prices for older, sicker Americans.

CHANG: That's NPR's fact-checker, Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.