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McCain Camp On Health: Talking Straight Or Taken Out Of Context?

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Did McCain's senior economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin really admit yesterday that his boss' health care plan won't really work? Many people seem to think so. But judge for yourself. Here he is in a report from the Money magazine pages at CNN.com, addressing the question of cherry-picking that haunts the McCain proposal:

Changing the tax treatment wouldn't hurt the employer-sponsored system and would allow more of the uninsured to buy their own coverage, [McCain advisers] say....Younger, healthier workers likely wouldn't abandon their company-sponsored plans, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's senior economic policy adviser.
"Why would they leave?" said Holtz-Eakin. "What they are getting from their employer is way better than what they could get with the credit."

Why, indeed? In fact, when the Agenda examined the McCain plan back in March, we found that most people, even the young and healthy, would pay less for more coverage under employer-sponsored plans than in the individual market.

Bloggers pounced almost immediately after the words were printed. "The entire premise of McCain's health care plan is that people can do better on the free market," wrote Jason Rosenbaum at the Huffington Post. The market supposedly makes health insurance cheaper, makes your health insurance company offer better coverage, and makes buying the insurance you need easier....John McCain's health care plan won't destroy the employer-based insurance system because McCain's plan doesn't work." Added Ana Marie Cox, at Time.com's Swampland, "there is a bigger gaffe hidden in DHE's statement. The problem, of course, isn't that employees would 'leave,' it's that employers would."

And the Obama campaign revved up its mighty machine. It sent email blasts, and hastily scheduled a conference call to dissect Holtz-Eakin's "stunning admission." Holtz-Eakins' remarks even found their way into the prepared text of Barack Obama's speech in Virginia: "Senator McCain doesn't like to talk about this plan all that much," he was to say in Harrisonburg. "But this morning, we were offered a stunning bit of straight talk — an October surprise — from his top economic advisor, who actually said that the health insurance people currently get from their employer is — and I quote — 'way better' than the health care they would get if John McCain becomes President."

Holtz-Eakin, in a response emailed to reporters yesterday afternoon, seems to think he was taken out of context -- not by the reporter, but by Obama, "using his millions in undisclosed fundraising sources." According to Holtz-Eakin, "The question I answered was: 'Will the young and healthy leave their generous employer-sponsored coverage as the Obama campaign claims?' My response was that, obviously, if they had better coverage, they would not change." But that conditional -- "if" they had better employer-sponsored coverage -- doesn't appear in his remarks as reported at Money. And Holtz-Eakin, when I asked him directly, declined to tell me he thought the article took his views out of context.

On the other hand, in my experience, Holtz-Eakin is a man who chooses his words carefully. My suspicion is that he wouldn't speak so recklessly, even if he believed it.

Last updated: Oct 29, 2008




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