May 12, 2017
Facts Matter

'People will die': overheated, but not made up

Facebook / Bernie Sanders

The issue:

One of the Democrats' most incendiary claims about the House-passed health care bill is that "people will die" if it becomes law. Sometimes they get more specific — Sen. Bernie Sanders said last week that "thousands of Americans will die."

The facts:

  • It's hard to deny that someone, somewhere, might die sooner if they don't get health care. It's a lot harder to put a number on it.
  • There are studies that flip the question around, and show that fewer people die in states that have expanded health coverage. This newly updated study by Harvard's Benjamin Sommers found that deaths declined in New York, Arizona and Maine when those states expanded Medicaid in the early 2000s.
  • An aide to Sanders said he got his numbers from two co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program, a pro-single payer group, who estimated that a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act would kill 43,000 people a year, based on the Medicaid research.
  • The issue is whether "saved lives" can really be converted into "deaths" if coverage is lost.
  • Stanford's Lanhee Chen, a member of the Axios board of experts, noted that "you could credibly argue by the same logic that 'people will die'" if the ACA continues unchanged and people lose coverage because insurers keep dropping out.
  • But Sommers said that while he "wouldn't put too much confidence in any one number ... it is reasonable to conclude that many Americans who lose coverage will forego needed care and could die because of it."

Why it matters:

This is an easy issue to demagogue, and if that happens, people will tune it out. The safest conclusion is to stay away from numbers and stick to the big picture: If people lose health coverage and can't get health care, they're at greater risk of an earlier death.

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