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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Healthreform.gov’s Positive Spin

A federal government website designed to help Americans understand the new health care law isn’t always helpful — or in some cases even accurate.

Take this question in the Q&A section for “small businesses."

Q: Am I required to offer insurance to my employees?

A: No. There is not a so-called “employer mandate” in the legislation.

That’s true if your definition of "small business" only covers firms with 49 or fewer employees; there’s no requirement that they provide coverage. But most of those who employ 50 workers or more face a choice of providing coverage or paying a penalty of $2,000 per full-time worker if any one of those workers gets a federal subsidy to help them buy insurance on their own. Is that a mandate? The administration says no, but businesses who have to pay the penalty may disagree.

You may hear a lot this campaign season about healthreform.gov — which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created in March. In a campaign ad that first aired April 30, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks about a woman who was stuck with a $15,000 hospital bill because her insurance company labeled her high blood pressure “a preexisting condition.” In the ad, Reid used healthreform.gov as a source to back up his statement that “68,000 Nevadans are being denied coverage for the same reason.” (Curiously, this figure is not listed anywhere on healthreform.gov’s “fact sheet” for Nevada.)

Government websites are more credible with voters than partisan websites. And, generally, government websites are reliable sources of information — particularly those that provide data, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But all government websites are not created equal. This site contains sweeping general statements that are debatable, misleading or false, putting a positive spin on some things that are really more complicated and uncertain than they appear.

For example, the website says the new law will "hold insurance companies accountable to keep premiums down." But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said premiums wouldn’t change significantly (they might go up slightly or might go down slightly) for those with employer-based coverage — which is most of us. (The Census Bureau reports that 58.5 percent of Americans get health care coverage through work.) Premiums would go up in the individual market, though benefits will get much better and more than half of those in this market would get subsidies that really slash their out-of-pocket costs. We have covered all this before and you can read more here.

Similarly, the website says the law will "make health insurance affordable for middle class families." But it depends on the definition of "middle class" and whether you currently have health care coverage and, if so, where you get it. The majority of Americans consider themselves "middle class," as we have written about before. So, will this bill make health insurance affordable for a majority of Americans? For sure, the law will make health insurance more affordable for Americans who receive federal subsidies to help buy insurance. But what about the middle-class families who get their insurance through work and are not eligible for health insurance subsidies? As we just mentioned, premiums for those people wouldn’t change significantly.

So, this campaign season be wary of sources of information — even those from a government domain.