Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Fact-checking claims about the individual mandate

The Supreme Court announced its ruling on the health care law on Thursday.
The Supreme Court announced its ruling on the health care law on Thursday.

With the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the health care law’s individual mandate, we thought it was time to revisit the many exaggerations, distortions and outright lies surrounding it.

The key provision that the court preserved was the individual mandate, a requirement that every American have health insurance coverage of some type. The court said the requirement was permissible because, at its heart, the individual mandate is a tax. People are free not to buy insurance and simply pay the tax.

Critics of the law said the mandate was government overreach. But we have sometimes found they exaggerated with some claims, such as when they said the law meant people would be jailed if they didn’t buy insurance.

"The federal law compels American citizens to contract for health insurance they do not want, do not need, or find morally objectionable," wrote Bob Marshall, a state legislator in Virginia. "Persons who decline to buy the coverage face fines and imprisonment."

We rated the claim that people could be imprisoned as Pants on Fire. In fact, the law specifically states that people who don’t pay the fine cannot be charged criminally. It also forbids liens or levies placed on property for failure to pay.

That incorrect claim, though, was repeated often. When Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly denied that the charge was said on Fox, we fact-checked that, too, for another Pants on Fire rating.

Still, the mandate has never been popular. Rick Santorum, a Republican candidate for president, said "Polls show Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to Obamacare, especially the individual mandate." We rated that Mostly True: Polls do show people oppose the mandate. We deducted a notch on the Truth-O-Meter because opposition to other parts of the law were not quite as strong.

In some ways, the furor over the mandate was ironic: President Barack Obama had actually opposed the mandate in the 2008 Democratic primary. We gave him a Full Flop on our Flip-O-Meter when he changed position in July 2009 and said he would accept a mandate.

Another bit of irony: Some Republicans had supported a plan with a mandate in the early 1990s as an alternative to a health care plan proposed by then President Bill Clinton. Liberal commentators pointed out that Sen. Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a 1993 health care bill that had an individual mandate. PolitiFact rated that True.

One Republican supporter who changed his position was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. During the Republican primary, candidate Michele Bachmann charged that Gingrich "first advocated for the individual mandate in health care. And as recently as May of this year, he was still advocating" for it. We rated that Mostly True; Gingrich had expressed flexibility on the details of health care.

Still, some claims about Republican support for the mandate exaggerated. A Facebook post claimed that "In 1993 the Republicans embraced a health platform that proudly features an individual mandate as its main component." Actually, only some Republicans embraced it -- there was always a contingent of Republicans (particularly libertarian-leaning ones) who opposed it. And, the Republican mandate tended to kick in only if certain benchmarks for health coverage weren’t met. We rated the statement Half True.

More accurate were some claims about the current Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who signed a bill into law in Massachusetts that enacted a statewide mandate. We looked at a statement from Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty who said that "Obamacare was patterned after (Mitt Romney's) plan in Massachusetts." We rated that True. The laws were highly similar in their structure, and both had a mandate.