“So now we find out these people are making decisions based on our politics and beliefs, and they’re going to be in charge of our health care. There’s a huge national database that’s being created right now. Your health care, my health care, all the Fox viewers health care, their personal, intimate, most close-to-the-vest secrets will be in that database, and the IRS is in charge of that database? So the IRS will have the ability potentially ...to deny health care, to deny access, to delay health care.”
— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), on Fox News, May 15, 2013
“When people realize that their most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information is in the hands of the IRS that’s been willing to use people’s tax information against political opponents of this administration, then people have pause and they pull back in horror.”
— Bachmann, on ABC News/Yahoo, May 20
With the Internal Revenue Service in the news, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has taken the opportunity to marry that scandal with her ongoing battle against the president’s health-care law, a.k.a. “Obamacare.”
The picture she has sketched is pretty frightening — that the “most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information is in the hands of the IRS” via a vast database. Indeed, even though our colleagues at PolitiFact and FactCheck.Org have beaten us to the punch on this language, the issues she has raised have generated enough buzz on the blogosphere that we believe we should weigh in as well.
What is Bachmann talking about?
Since the health-care mandate is effectively a tax — most Americans will either need to have health insurance or pay a penalty — the IRS was given an important role in administering various tax credits and penalties that are part of the law. This is part of a long-term trend to provide social benefits via the tax code. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson noted in her 2010 annual report that “the increasing use of the IRS to administer benefit programs is placing significant strains on the IRS’s limited resources and requiring the IRS to perform tasks that go well beyond its current mission statement.”
Bachmann spokesman Dan Kotman pointed us to a number of right-leaning editorial columns as support for Bachmann’s statements, including this passage from The Wall Street Journal editorial page:
To monitor compliance with these rules, the IRS and HHS are now building the largest personal information database the government has ever attempted. Known as the Federal Data Services Hub, the project is taking the IRS's own records (for income and employment status) and centralizing them with information from Social Security (identity), Homeland Security (citizenship), Justice (criminal history), HHS (enrollment in entitlement programs and certain medical claims data) and state governments (residency).
But the official descriptions of the “Data Services Hub” show that it is not what would generally be considered “a database.” It will not actually store information, but will be used so that health exchanges, which are being creating for the purchase of health insurance, can ask questions about application information. The Hub will be built by the Department of Health and Human Services, with the IRS in a supporting role.
During a congressional hearing last August, Olson — who is nonpartisan and independent — was asked specifically two key questions: Does this aspect of the Affordable Care Act represent an unprecedented expansion of the IRS’s powers? And will the IRS have access to individuals’ personal health information when they are verifying insurance coverage?
This was her answer:
I view ACA not as an unprecedented expansion of IRS powers but rather an unprecedented expansion of IRS work. The powers that we have in the law are powers that reside in tax administration, period. We implement the earned income tax credit, which is billions of dollars, the first-time homebuyer credit, as you referenced, the economic stimulus payment. We are a disburser of payments, and that trend has been happening since the ‘70s.
In terms of health information that we would get, my understanding is that we would get the information from insurers whether or not that taxpayer was covered, and essentially nothing else — the amount of the premium paid — and that would be it. Nothing about their state of health or anything like that.
“The Affordable Care Act maintains strict privacy controls to safeguard personal information,” said Joanne Peters, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “The IRS will not have access to personal health information. Application for financial assistance will be part of applying for coverage on the marketplace and will take place in near real time.”
Similarly, IRS officials have also denied that personal health information would be collected. As FactCheck.Org noted, this issue even came up in the midst of the hearings on the IRS scandal on May 17:
REP. JIM MCDERMOTT: The IRS can’t access your medical files. Is that true, Mr. Miller?
ACTING COMMISSIONER STEVEN MILLER: Correct, sir.
MCDERMOTT: They cannot find out your private medical information.
MILLER: That’s correct, sir.
MCDERMOTT:Their job in Obamacare is simply to collect financial information on which a determination is made as to whether somebody can get a subsidy for their premiums. Is that correct?
MILLER: Were you covered and over what period is what we would be getting.
It is also worth noting that the data involve just people who sign up for health exchanges. Only about 26 million will be eligible at first, and far fewer are expected to sign up, meaning that most Americans will continue with the insurance they currently have and thus won’t even be affected by the “hub,” despite Bachmann’s suggestion that all Americans would have their private information in this database.
In defense of Bachmann, Kotman also pointed to a recent lawsuit described in a report by the Courthouse News Service. It said, “A lurid but vague class action accuses corrupt and abusive IRS agents of stealing 10 million people’s medical records without a warrant — including ‘intimate medical records of every state judge in California.’” The claims are interesting, but they are simply unproven allegations at this point. It is not clear what the allegations have to do with the health-care law.
The Pinocchio Test
Bachmann has made a sweeping claim: the “most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information is in the hands of the IRS” under the health-care law. There is no evidence to support this assertion, and she is simply scaring people when she repeats it on television.
Bachmann thus continues her record-breaking streak of outlandish claims.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker