One of the main themes that drives the opposition to President Obama’s health-care overhaul is the idea of the federal government muscling its way into individuals’ private health decisions.
One of the favored images in those arguments is the specter of 16,000 newly hired agents from the Internal Revenue Service sweeping in to enforce the law’s rules and regulations.
It was evoked in a letter one of our readers received last month from Daniel C. Weber, president and founder of the Association of Mature American Citizens, which calls itself "the conservative alternative to the AARP." Our reader forwarded the letter to us.
In his letter, Weber called for signatures on a petition to "defund" the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare, and asked recipients to pay for a membership in his group ($16 per year, with discounts for multi-year memberships.)
Among other things, Weber claimed that if the law is fully implemented, the federal government will hire 16,000 new IRS agents who "will begin prying into our private medical records, eyeing each and every one of our treatments and prescriptions for ‘violations.’ "
We left e-mail and telephone messages for Weber with his organization, but weren’t able to reach him for comment.
Politifact reporters and others around the country have been playing Whac-a-Mole with variations of this claim for a while now. PolitiFact National gave then-Illinois Republican U.S. Rep. (and later to be U.S. Sen.) Mark Kirk a Mostly Falseruling for saying in a March 21, 2010, speech on the House floor that the IRS would have to hire 16,000 employees "to audit the American people and impose the new taxes and mandates of the bill."
PolitiFact National traced the origin of that number to a report from the Congressional Budget Office that said that, based on what it called incomplete estimates, the new law could wind up costing the IRS between $5 billion and $10 billion over the next 10 years.
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee took the high end of that incomplete estimate, $10 billion, divided it by the average IRS employee’s salary and came up with 16,500 additional "examiners, auditors and other employees." But the committee also noted it was "impossible to know" the exact number of new hires.
PolitiFact rated the claim Mostly False because it incorrectly attributed the 16,500-employee figure directly to the CBO, took only the high end of an incomplete estimate and assumed all the money would go to staff and not for other costs, such as office overhead.
A year later, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga, added some new touches to the claim. In a March 28, 2011, letter he sent to a constituent, the 16,500 IRS employees became 16,500 agents enforcing the law. PolitiFact Georgia ruled his claim False.
Despite two years of similar debunkings, the 16,000-agent claim not only survives, it’s morphing, as evidenced by Weber’s letter. In addition to repeating the number, he says the new agents will be investigating citizens’ private medical records.
Is that true? In short, no. Here are the facts.
The law requires individuals who don’t have health insurance to pay a financial penalty. The IRS envisions taxpayers getting a form from their insurance provider that certifies they have coverage, and then attaching that form to their federal tax return.
If the taxpayer doesn’t have coverage, the IRS will be responsible for collecting any penalties.
How that collection is to be enforced is unclear because the law strips the agency of the ability to impose criminal and civil penalties, such as liens on property.
As far as Weber’s claim that the IRS would be investigating taxpayer’s medical procedures, Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman has said the agency’s only interest is in the yes-or-no question of whether a taxpayer has coverage, not what procedures, if any, it covered.
"We expect to get a simple form that we won’t look behind that says this person has acceptable health coverage," Shulman told a House Ways and Means subcommittee on March 25, 2010. "There are not going to be any discussions about health coverage with an IRS employee."
"The role of the IRS is going to be, again, the tax portions of this," he said, "not the health portions of this."
Dan Weber, president of the Association of Mature American Citizens, said in a widely circulated letter that under the federal health overhaul, 16,000 new IRS agents will be "prying into our private medical records."
Weber’s letter recycled arguments that have been repeatedly found to be untrue -- and added a new and equally untrue element.
Pants on Fire.