AP responds, defends health care price tag

AP RESPONDS, DEFENDS HEALTH CARE PRICE TAG…. On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders unveiled a health care reform package, which they said cost about $1 trillion over 10 years. A CBO score agreed. On Wednesday, the Associated Press, initially citing an unnamed Democratic staffer, put the cost at $1.5 trillion. Yesterday morning, the AP simply repeated the higher figure as fact, making no mention of the dispute. Other news outlets, following the AP’s lead, ran with the $1.5 trillion price tag.

I spoke yesterday with Paul Colford, the AP’s Director of Media Relations, who offered this explanation for the wire service’s reporting.

The Congressional Budget Office score of $1.04 trillion that the Democrats cite is the figure for the new health insurance “exchange.”

However, that is a net figure, including about $237 billion in revenue raised from employer and individual mandates — fees paid by those who don’t provide or purchase care. Thus, if you look at costs, the score on that is about $1.27 trillion.

There is also a separate piece of the bill covering Medicare. It includes about $350 billion in new spending (the biggest single piece is for the so-called “doc fix,” which involves the payment rate to doctors under Medicare).

Soon after, the AP published a report, explaining the cost estimates in more detail. It shows the reform package costing $1.65 trillion over 10 years.

I’m encouraged by the fact that the AP acknowledged the questions raised about its reporting, and took the time to communicate directly with bloggers like me. That said, the explanation does not necessarily put the matter to rest.

In fact, some of the original objections remain salient. As Greg Sargent explained yesterday, “[A]gain, the problem is that we don’t yet know what the bill will cost in the end. Estimates differ. House Dems argue that it’s reckless to assign a hard and fast cost before the CBO has completed its score. Yet the AP keeps describing the bill as a ‘$1.5 trillion plan,’ without registering the Dem objection — and without including the CBO’s initial analysis. Even if you agree that the bill is likely to cost this in the end, it’s still reckless of the AP to keep treating this number as established fact, when it simply isn’t any such thing.”

What’s more, I’m also wondering about the timeline of events here. The AP began reporting the higher figure as fact on Wednesday, citing an anonymous staffer. Did the wire service come up with the more detailed analysis before or after it began reporting the number, or did it go back after the fact to justify the earlier reporting? (For that matter, if the more granular look at the costs pointed to a $1.65 trillion estimate, why not use that number?)

At a minimum, given the uncertainty or the process and the estimates involved, it seems only fair for the AP to at least acknowledge the basis of the dispute, rather than characterize the $1.5 trillion figure as established fact.