“President Obama promised that his health care plan would reduce annual insurance premiums by $2,500 a family by the end of his first term. That has not happened. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, the average family premium for people getting insurance at work is nearly $3,000 higher than it was when the President took office.”

–Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.), GOP weekly address, Sept. 7, 2013

What happens if a politician makes a pledge and is called out by fact checkers for being silly and misleading? And what if the pledge also concerns a plan that turns out to be different than what he proposed during the campaign? Is the pledge still valid for ridicule by the other side?

That’s the interesting question raised by Sen. Barrasso’s carefully-worded remarks during the GOP’s weekly radio address. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

Obama referred to this $2,500 promise at least 19 times during the 2008 campaign, according to an interesting video supplied by Barrasso’s office:

The specifics were later out in a campaign memo, which called the $2,500 figure a “best-guess” assumption. 

But Obama’s pledge came with a very large asterisk: He was not saying premiums would fall by $2,500, but that health-care costs per family would be that much lower than anticipated. In other words, if overall costs–not just premiums–were expected to rise by $5,000 by 2012, they would only rise by $2,500. Yep, that’s what Obama’s pledge meant, even if he was not especially clear about it and frequently misstated it.

When Obama made this claim in 2008, he was quickly called out by fact checkers. The Fact Checker awarded Obama Pinocchios for the pledge, saying it was based on shaky assumptions (such as a Rand Corp. study that was criticized by the Congressional Budget Office) and that there was no guarantee that any cost savings would be passed on to consumers.

Our colleagues at FactCheck.org also thought Obama’s pledge was dubious. “We find his statements to be overly optimistic, misleading and, to some extent, contradicted by one of his own advisers,” the group said. “And it masks the true cost of his plan to cover millions of Americans who now have no health insurance.”

Moreover, once Obama became president, the health care proposal he advocated as a candidate was significantly changed, even to the point of accepting the individual mandate that he had so criticized when Hillary Rodham Clinton promoted it. To some extent, Obama could argue that such changes should get him off the hook from his pledge, but the White House continues to claim that costs will not rise as quickly as previously estimated. But rather than $2,500 by the end of Obama’s first term, the White House says it would be $2,000 in savings by 2019—in part because the health care law will not even be fully implemented until 2014.

“When the President of the United States says something at least 19 times to the American people, they should be able to trust him.  They should not have to check back later for the quietly whispered ‘asterisk’ and fine print,” said Barrasso spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore.  “The White House has moved the goal posts on the President’s promise repeatedly – especially by saying that family savings won’t go into effect until 2019… I know that President Obama and Administration officials have not updated the American people on the policy change at least 19 times in a row in recorded speeches.”

As we noted, however, any regular reader of fact checks would have known not to put much stake in Obama’s $2,500 pledge. Caveat emptor any time a politician makes such a promise.

Meanwhile, Barrasso follows up his reference to Obama’s pledge with a nonsequitur, citing a Kaiser Family Foundation survey: “The average family premium for people getting insurance at work is nearly $3,000 higher than it was when the President took office.”

Lawrimore justifies this because Obama’s original statement referred to reducing costs by the end of his first term—but as we noted, the health care law has not yet even been implemented. The actual impact on premiums is just now being calculated—and you can pick from a range of studies to decide whether the law is boosting premiums or reducing them. Trust us—no one really knows yet. But that won’t stop each side from seizing on data that they think makes their case.

The Kaiser survey, in fact, makes no judgment on whether the Affordable Care Act has played much of role in the increase in premiums. Indeed, the rate of the increase under Obama, a little under 6 percent per year, is more than half the rate of premium increases in the decade before Obama took office. Health economists still are not entirely sure of the reasons for the dramatic slowdown in rate hikes, but Barrasso’s use of raw numbers obscures what many would consider to be a good-news story.

Beware also of averages. Generally speaking, under Obamacare, younger, healthier people should expect higher premiums while older people might see a decrease, because the law places limits on how much more an older individual pays than  a younger person. The law also mandates a benefit package that is generally much more robust than what people previously buy now on the individual market. Such benefits cost money—and will boost premiums—but it also makes it harder to do an apples to apples comparisons over time.

In any case, the health care law was not passed until 2010, a year after Obama took office, with much of the law still to be implemented. So it makes little sense to date the rise of premiums from when Obama took office.

The Pinocchio Test

In his remarks, Barrasso carefully does not directly say that the increase in premiums is the result of Obama’s health care law, but the juxtaposition with Obama’s pledge suggests that. He also warns that Americans are going to face “sticker shock” when the law formally goes into effect.

Obama’s pledge was silly and worthy of Pinocchios, in part because the fine print showed there was much less to the pledge that he suggested in his speeches. But the White House has not disavowed it—and Obama will face the consequences if the American people feel misled by his langauge.

Even laying that aside, Barrasso can’t suggest that the rise in premiums since Obama took office is the result of a health care law that largely has not yet taken effect. By using raw numbers, the senator also glosses over the fact that the rate of increase has actually slowed significantly during Obama’s presidency.

Two Pinocchios

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