Twisting the facts

Obamacare foes are misinterpreting a new CBO report for political advantage

Opponents of the national health care reform law known as Obamacare have seized on a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to claim the Affordable Care Act will eliminate more than 2 million jobs from 2017 to 2024. The CBO said nothing of the kind, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from furiously spinning the report to their advantage.

Before everyone gets dizzy and falls over, let's all take deep breaths and calm down. Here's what the CBO actually said:

The bipartisan budget agency predicted that as many as 2.5 million Americans might — there's no way to know for sure — voluntarily choose to leave full-time jobs or switch to part-time hours as a result of the subsidies available under the health care reform law. Initial headlines suggested the CBO had predicted a net loss of jobs.

From the CBO report: "CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive."

In other words, the report explains, lower-income workers who receive substantial subsidies under the health care law will see those subsidies shrink as their income rises, and some may elect to reduce their hours if they can do so without losing health coverage. Think of new mothers who return to work sooner than they might want to, who could afford to stay home with their children instead.

Another group that might decide to leave the labor force is older workers staying on the job only to keep health insurance until they are eligible for Medicare. Many may decide to retire earlier if they are assured of health coverage.

This decline in the number of workers does not mean fewer jobs overall, but that hasn't stopped Obamacare's foes in Congress from claiming it does.

"The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.

In fact, the CBO report suggests the traditional linkage between jobs and health insurance in this country may finally be weakening — something many, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, have advocated for years. The idea that health insurance should be provided by employers is a legacy of the labor movement, which successfully bargained for health benefits for union members until it became the norm for most full-time workers. But there is no logical reason why employers should have to provide health coverage if it is otherwise available at reasonable cost.

Like all aspects of health care reform, its effect on the labor market is constantly changing as the system expands. The focus of congressional leaders ought to be on the long-term benefits of expanding health coverage to more Americans, not on exploiting incremental changes for short-term political gain.

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