A Check Up On Senators' Health Bill Claims

As part of our ongoing series on the Senate health care debate, "Is That So?" Morning Edition examines claims made this week by two senators from the opposite sides of the aisle. Republican Senator John Thune says if the health care bill passes, taxes will kick in right away but benefits will be delayed for years. Democrat Al Franken says benefits kick in right away.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All kinds of assertions are being made on the Senate floor about the Democrats' health care bill. Today we'll check a few more facts in our series Is That So. NPR's David Welna takes a look at claims made this week by two senators from neighboring states but opposite sides of the aisle. The issue: If the health care bill passes, when do Americans pay for it and when do they get its benefits?

DAVID WELNA: One afternoon this week, South Dakota Republican John Thune was out on the Senate floor complaining about the Democrats' health care overhaul. Should such a bill get enacted, Thune asserted, Democrats had structured things so families would immediately be saddled with paying for it without getting paid back in benefits for another four years.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): So they front-load all the tax increases. So all these tax increases are going to get passed on immediately. And by 2013 every American family is going to be paying, starting next year, $600 a year up to the year 2013. So every American family is going to feel the brunt of these additional costs for taxes and the premium increases that will follow from those.

WELNA: Is that so? Not really. The only actual tax increase that would take effect next year is a five percent surtax on voluntary cosmetic surgery. The most significant tax increase begins in 2013, when high-cost insurance plans get slapped with a 40 percent excise tax. Having health insurance becomes mandatory in 2014, which is when an excise tax penalty begins to phase in for most people who don't buy insurance.

Now, it is true that starting next year, fees totaling about $11 billion annually will be assessed on big health insurers, as well as on the major makers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates those fees would have minimal impact on most consumers. And not by any stretch of the imagination does every American family get hit with $600 in additional costs each year, as Senator Thune asserted.

Just as Thune finished speaking, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken strolled out on the Senate floor. He stopped and chatted with Thune, then shared their conversation by way of a floor speech.

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): I said I didn't hear your whole speech. And he went, Oh, man, that's too bad. And - but I said, Did you actually happen to mention any of the benefits that do kick in right away? And he said, Ah, no. Which I think is, you know, again, we are entitled to our own opinions. We're not entitled to our own facts. Benefits kick in right away.

WELNA: Is that so? Not entirely. Some of the health care bill's benefits do indeed kick in right away. For example, there's a $5 billion two-year program to provide health insurance to people who'd been denied coverage due to preexisting conditions. The bill also immediately helps close a gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage.

But according to the CBO, most of the bill's benefits start being paid out in 2014, including the subsidies individuals and families get to help them buy insurance, which becomes mandatory that same year. That's also the year states will be required to have insurance exchanges meant to lower the cost of coverage.

The delay in those benefits helps keep the initial 10-year price tag of the bill under the $900 billion limit set by President Obama, and that's one fact that no one disputes.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. The things that you like to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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