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Sunday Morning Gotcha: Gregory Busts Hatch

Health care was the main topic of discussion on Meet the Press this morning. And at one point, Senator Orrin Hatch made a misleading, if all too familiar, claim. If reform includes a public insurance plan, Hatch said, tens of millions of people would lose their private insurance and enroll in the public plan instead. Hatch went on to say that both government and private-sector economists agree, citing one estimate that more than a hundred million people could end up in the government-run plan.

The claim is misleading because the government and private-sector economists didn't say that. Readers of Harold Pollack's item earlier this week are familiar with the reasons. For the rest of you, here's a refresher:

The private sector economists Hatch has in mind are the experts at the Lewin Group. And it's true, the Lewin Group did famously produce an estimate that reform with a public option might attract more than a hundred million people. But Lewin didn't base its estimate on legislation moving through Congress. It based its estimate on a hypothetical version that lacked certain key elements, most notably a firewall preventing large employers from buying into the public plan.*

When you add those missing elements, the number of people who drop or lose private insurance and then take up public insurance dwindles to almost nothing--a few million. And, in fact, that's precisely what the Congressional Budget Office--the government economists Hatch was talking about--found when it analyzed legislation from the House of Representatives and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee.

Fortunately, "Meet the Press" Host David Gregory had done his homework. When Hatch trotted out his line about "tens of millions," Gregory very correctly cited the above facts--and accused Hatch, to his face, of lying. Hatch never admitted he was wrong, but he did ackowledge that the CBO's estimate was that only ten million people overall would enroll in the public plan--and then said something like (I wasn't taking notes) "See, I said tens of millions."

It was a rare moment of clarity in this debate. Good for Gregory.

By the way, Hatch's sparring partner was Senator Charles Schumer of New York. I don't associate Schumer with health care the way I associate senators like Ted Kennedy or Jay Rockefeller. But having watched him a few times now, I have to say that he really knows what he's talking about--and, no less important, he knows how to convey the ideas in an accessible, persuasive way. Schumer has never suffered from under-exposure. But, at a time when the Democrats are struggling to get out their message on health care, they would do well to keep putitng Schumer front and center.

*For the record, I wish the firewall weren't there. In fact, if I had my way, I'd design reform so that enrollment in the public plan really would soar. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, that's not going to happen.