Sen. Phil Berger spreading bad healthcare information, policy experts say

jfrank@newsobserver.comFebruary 8, 2013 


Phil Berger takes an oath as he was re-elected to North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore. North Carolina General Assembly's 2013-2014 session convened Wednesday, January 9, 2013.


Months after the U.S. Supreme Court settled the debate about much of the federal health care law, Senate leader Phil Berger is circulating an online petition to “Stop Obamacare in North Carolina.”

The petition appears on the Eden Republican’s campaign website. And its language perpetuates one of the bigger myths about the Affordable Care Act, said Mark Hall, a health policy expert at Wake Forest University’s law school.

“These arguments have been rejected – it is the law of the land,” said Hall.

The petition is tied to the state Senate’s passage of legislation that prevents the expansion of Medicaid and a state-sponsored health insurance exchange, two key provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care law. Berger did not return calls Friday about the petition.

On his website Berger says the Senate bill “protects us from: the government turning our health records over to the IRS; government-forced insurance; billions in new taxes on businesses and the people of North Carolina” and ask those who agree to him to sign the petition.

The premise that the Senate is protecting the state is misleading, policy experts said. Even with the legislation now awaiting House action, the state is subject to most of the federal health care law. If North Carolina doesn’t set up a marketplace for purchasing insurance, called an exchange, the federal government will establish one for the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the Affordable Care Act in June 2012 gave states discretion about whether to expand Medicaid coverage to those making 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,809 for a family of four. Most other provisions of the health care law are not affected by state action, policy experts said.

“There is nothing the state can do now to change the major impacts,” Hall said.

As for the claim that the law will require the government to turn over health records to the IRS, Hall said that is simply not true.

The IRS is the agency charged with determining whether individuals get health insurance or pay a penalty, as the law mandates. But the IRS is not going to ask for health records. The agency has told Congress that it expects taxpayers to get a form from their health insurance company certifying coverage and attach it to their federal return.

Such suggestions, in various forms, have been debunked by independent fact-checkers and the IRS. PolitiFact gave a similar claim – it referred to “private medical records” – made by the Association of Mature American Citizens a “pants on fire” rating in December. “It’s just one of those absurd lies,” Hall said. “It’s simply similar to the information you give the IRS to get a deduction for paying your home mortgage interest.”

Hall said the government isn’t forcing anyone to buy insurance either, but will impose a tax on those who don’t – a provision upheld by the high court.

The final point about taxes is based in the law. The measure raises $525 billion in revenue over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan division, to pay for health care for an estimated 32 million people by 2019. The taxes range from a 3.8 percent tax on investment income for high-income earners to an excise tax on indoor tanning services. Hall said it is safe to assume more than $1 billion likely will hit North Carolina payers on whole.

Berger’s intention for the petition remains unclear. But often online petitions serve a distinct political purpose.

Chris Sinclair, a Republican strategist at Cornerstone Solutions in Raleigh and an expert in digital campaigns, said it is a way to collect names and contact information for like-minded supporters – information that proves useful in future campaigns, fundraising and voter mobilization efforts.

It’s particularly true with hot button issues. In Pat McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign, Sinclair used contact information collected from a voter ID petition to engage supporters ahead of the election.

Berger has been mentioned as a potential challenger to U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Greensboro, in 2014.“Sen. Berger is running for first shot at the primary against Kay Hagan,” said Don Taylor, a health policy expert and Duke University professor, to explain the petition.

Berger remains undecided on the race but in a recent interview he didn’t rule out a Senate bid.

“The only reason you do a petition is to acquire followers and acquire advocates for your position,” said Sinclair. “It can be tremendously successful.”

Frank: 919-829-4698