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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

White House Fact-Checking

We welcome competition – or rather, colleagues – in the fact-checking business. But the latest entrant to our line of work is an entity we’ve actually fact-checked, and will continue to fact-check. Regularly. 

The White House, according to its official blog, is encouraging people to send along any health care rumors or claims, mainly of the "scary" chain e-mail variety, that seem "fishy." In its first installment of these debunking efforts, Linda Douglass, the communications director for the Health Reform Office, addresses a posting on the Drudge Report headlined "Uncovered Video: Obama Explains How His Health Care Plan will ‘Eliminate’ Private Insurance."

In a short video, Douglass says "nothing could be farther from the truth" and points to clips of statements the president has said recently that contradict the idea that private insurance would be scrapped: For instance, Obama has said "if you have insurance that you like then you will be able to keep that insurance," and "let’s have a system the same way that federal employees do, the same way that members of Congress do, where, we call it an exchange, but you can call it a marketplace, where you essentially, you’ve got have a whole bunch of different plans."

The people who spread falsehoods, Douglass says, are "taking sentences and phrases out of context and cobbling them together to leave a very false impression." We certainly agree. But we would have fact-checked this a little differently, taking on directly the "uncovered video" that purports to show Obama saying he would "eliminate" private insurance.

That video shows a clip of Obama speaking at a March 24, 2007, health care forum for presidential candidates sponsored by the union SEIU and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The video claims that the clip shows "Obama admitting his plan will ELIMINATE private insurance." But that’s not what he said.

In the clip, Obama said: "But I don’t think we’re going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately. There’s going to be potentially some transition process. I can envision a decade out or 15 years out or 20 years out …" The full transcript from the event shows that Obama was talking about setting up an insurance exchange, much like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, through which federal employees buy coverage. (The FEHBP site shows that several private insurance companies offer coverage to federal employees; a media representative for the Office of Personnel Management told us there are 269 health plans offered in total – about 10 national Fee-For-Service plans plus HMOs that vary by state.) His eliminating "employer coverage" – not "private" coverage – comment is about people buying insurance through this exchange or "pool" rather than through their jobs so insurance would be portable. Here are Obama’s comments in context:

Obama, March 24, 2007: Another principle is that it’s going to have to be some form of pooling of costs of risk. And there are going to be a number of proposals, and they’re out. I heard in some of the previous questions that one pool would be the federal pool that already exists for myself and other federal workers. Some states, like California and Massachusetts, already started to set up their pools. Whatever the mechanism, we going to have to have a pooling system so that individuals have the benefits of being part of a larger group. …

As I indicated before, I think that we’re going to have to have some system where people can buy into a larger pool. Right now their pool typically is the employer, but there are other ways of doing it. I would like to — I would hope that we could set up a system that allows those who can go through their employer to access a federal system or a state pool of some sort. But I don’t think we’re going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately. There’s going to be potentially some transition process. I can envision a decade out or 15 years out or 20 years out where we’ve got a much more portable system. Employers still have the option of providing coverage, but many people may find that they get better coverage, or at least coverage that gives them more for health care dollars than they spend outside of their employer. And I think we’ve got to facilitate that and let individuals make that choice to transition out of employer coverage.

This "uncovered video" then cuts to a clip of Obama speaking at an AFL-CIO event back in 2003. We wrote about that video last October after the third presidential debate. It’s true that Obama said at that forum that he was “a proponent of a single-payer health care program,” adding, “that’s what I’d like to see. And as all of you know, we may not get there immediately.” But that was six years ago, and as a presidential candidate, and as president, Obama has said he would be in favor of such a system if "starting from scratch." Instead, he has said he wants to build on the system we have.

We pointed this out again in June when former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claimed that Obama called for a single-payer system "when he was campaigning." Recently, Obama has been responding to questions from single-payer fans at town hall events, asking why he isn’t calling for such a system.