WASHINGTON — Beware of politicians quoting poll numbers.
That was one lesson from the White House health policy conference Thursday as lawmakers in both parties cherry-picked survey results, ignored contrary findings and presented public opinion, which is highly nuanced on these questions, as a slam dunk.
Claims, counterclaims and statistics flew through the room in the daylong talkfest by President Obama and lawmakers from both parties. Some didn't hold up to the facts.
A look at some statements in the meeting and how they compare with reality:
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: "I think it is not irrelevant that the American people, if you average out of all of the polls, are opposed to this bill by 55-37. And we know from a USA Today-Gallup poll out this morning they're opposed to using the reconciliation device, the short-circuit approach that Lamar referred to that would end up with only bipartisan opposition, by 52-39."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "Last Monday, a week ago Monday, all over America, the results were run from a poll done by the Kaiser Foundation. It was interesting what that poll said. Fifty-eight percent of Americans would be disappointed or angry if we did not do health care reform this year — 58 percent. Across America, more than 60 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents want us to reform the way health care works. Is it any wonder?"
Obama: "When you poll people about the individual elements in these bills, they're all for them."
McConnell's device of averaging polls to come up with a precise result is dubious. Because polls are often taken at different times, with different sample sizes, margins of error and ways of wording their questions, combining them may not yield a valid result.
The Republican leader and others on his side ignored a variety of findings in recent surveys, such as the one suggesting most people want Washington to act on rising medical costs and shrinking coverage — and trust Obama and the Democrats more than Republicans to do it.
Even so, the Kaiser survey cited by Reid was hardly a cheer for what Democrats have come up with so far, although there was no telling that from his remarks. Less than one-third wanted Congress to send Obama a final version of the legislation approved by the House and Senate.
More than 40 percent wanted Washington to put health care on hold or pull the plug. Overall, people were split 43-43 for or against health care legislation.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.: "The Congressional Budget Office report says that premiums will rise in the individual market as a result of the Senate bill."
Obama: "No, no, no, no. Let me — and this is an example of where we've got to get our facts straight."
Alexander: "That's my point."
Obama: "Here's what the Congressional Budget Office says: The costs for families for the same type of coverage that they're currently receiving would go down 14 percent to 20 percent. What the Congressional Budget Office says is that because now they've got a better deal, because policies are cheaper, they may choose to buy better coverage than they have right now, and that might be 10 percent to 13 percent more expensive than the bad insurance that they had previously."
Both are right, but Obama offered important context that Alexander left out.
The nonpartisan analysis estimated that average premiums for people buying insurance individually would be 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 under the Senate legislation, supporting Alexander's point. But the policies would cover more, and about half the people would be getting substantial government subsidies to defray the extra costs.
As the president said, if the policies offered today were offered in 2016, they would be considerably cheaper under the plan, even without subsidies.
Moreover, the analysis estimated that the people getting subsidies would see their costs cut by more than half from what they pay now.
Obama: "We've tried to take every cost-containment idea that's out there and adopt it in this bill."
A number of money-saving ideas have been watered down or excluded entirely.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the government could save $41 billion over 10 years by capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits — an idea promoted by Republicans but opposed by trial lawyers, who have traditionally been heavy contributors to Democratic politicians. But Obama and congressional Democrats have not gone along with caps.
Also, the budget office estimated the government could save nearly $19 billion over 10 years by "bundling" Medicare payments to hospitals. Under this proposal, the government would make a single reimbursement covering a patient's hospital stay and post-surgical care instead of paying separately for each procedure or visit.
Obama initially embraced the measure but Congress and the White House ended up settling for weaker steps like demonstration projects that won't yield savings anytime soon.
Alexander called on Obama to "renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through" the bill with only Democratic votes. He was talking about a parliamentary process Congress can use called budget reconciliation, which would prevent Senate Republicans from blocking health care legislation. In response, Reid denied that was his intent, saying, "No one has talked about reconciliation."
Talk about the use of the reconciliation process, which Republicans view as an assault on their rights as the Senate minority, has been in the air for months, and Reid himself has been part of that conversation. In a Nevada political talk show, "Face to Face with John Ralston," Reid said on Feb. 19 that he planned to use the reconciliation process to pass a pared-down health care bill. And answering reporters' questions about the process this week, Reid said Republicans "should stop crying about reconciliation. It's done almost every Congress, and they're the ones that used it more than anyone else." On the latter point, Reid was right.