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Politifact critical of Phelps' claim, calls it 'mostly false'

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The candidates in Senate District 1 are sparring over health care costs, as state Rep. Bob Steinburg is calling out his opponent, Washington County Commissioner Cole Phelps, for making what he claims are “false attacks” on his record.

Steinburg, R-Chowan, is also pointing to an article by an independent fact-checker to back up his claim.

For its part, Phelps’ campaign says the candidate is sticking to its claim about Steinburg’s record. 

The dispute started when Phelps, a Democrat, posted on Facebook last month that “health care premiums in North Carolina are now among the five highest ... in the country,” and accused Steinburg of “protecting insurance company profits — not his constituents.”

Politifact NC, the group that investigates political ads and politicians’ claims for accuracy, rated Phelps’ claim in an Oct. 2 article as “mostly false.”

Phelps' claim about North Carolina's high premiums hinged on a WalletHub analysis which ranked North Carolina's premiums as 45th in the nation, author Paul Specht wrote. That would appear to back up Phelps, but WalletHub's analysis only ranked the costs of health plans offered through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces for individual coverage, he continued. The Kaiser Family Foundation gave Specht a further caveat: the vast majority of marketplace participants receive subsidies to offset their premiums, helping drive down their actual cost of coverage.

WalletHub did not study the costs of employer-provided insurance, but the Kaiser Family Foundation told Specht that North Carolina's average annual health premium for a single employee was about $5,700 in 2016, “one of the lowest averages in the country.”

In a press release, Steinburg's campaign claimed that Politifact had “concluded the attack is 'mostly false,'” and further claimed Phelps was so “desperate” for power that he's telling falsehoods.

In Specht’s article, Politifact specifically determined Phelps' claim that North Carolina has the fifth highest premiums was “mostly false.” Politifact did not, however, evaluate Phelps' broader allegation that Steinburg is protecting insurers and not constituents.

Phelps did not grant a request for an interview on the Politifact article. Instead, his campaign manager, Robert Grier, wrote in an email Friday that “we absolutely stand by the claims about Steinburg's record.”

“He has repeatedly fought to make it harder for his constituents to get healthcare and easier for insurance companies to overcharge them,” Grier said.

Grier based that on Steinburg's past opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Grier wrote Steinburg has advocated for a “total repeal” of the ACA, and “that would return us to the days of people with preexisting conditions being denied coverage or charged astronomical rates.”

Grier also criticized Steinburg for opposing the expansion of Medicaid, one of the key components of the major health care law. Republicans, who hold a majority of seats in both chambers of North Carolina's Legislature, have blocked the expansion, which the Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated could provide coverage to 463,000 more state residents, including families with incomes slightly above the federal poverty level and adults who are low-income, childless and working.

“The Politifact article has nothing to do with Mr. Steinburg's record,” Grier wrote. “The jobs that afford people private insurance coverage are scarcely available in District 1 compared to the rest of the state.”

The Phelps campaign also pointed to Steinburg's opposition to establishing state-based insurance exchanges — an option North Carolina had instead of relying on the federal marketplace — and shared an article from the Commonwealth Fund that found state-based exchanges have led to lower insurance premiums.

Steinburg, who also declined a request for an interview, reiterated in an email that Phelps “hasn't offered any evidence for this attack.”

“Repealing Obamacare does not equal 'taking away protections for families with preexisting conditions,'” Steinburg wrote, using a nickname for the ACA. “Nearly every GOP proposal (to replace the ACA) said they would maintain coverage for preexisting conditions.”

Steinburg also argued Phelps' approach to health care would be ineffective.

“What's his plan? Government taking over healthcare, like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton who are pushing for disastrous single-payer healthcare?” Steinburg wrote. “I'd rather reform Medicaid” to eliminate inefficiencies and fraud and “expand tort reform to drive down the costs of frivolous lawsuits,” he added.

Notably, then-candidate Donald Trump claimed in 2016 that Clinton wanted to go to a single-payer system. Politifact rated that claim false, explaining Clinton favored a “public option” for insurance but had reservations about a single-payer system that could largely replace private insurance. Clinton reiterated her concerns about single-payer in a Sept. 2017 interview with vox.com.

As for the complex question of the ACA's impact on premiums, www.factcheck.org found last year that, while the ACA's marketplace plans have seen high and rising premiums for health insurance, the Kaiser Family Foundation hasn't estimated how much the ACA affected employer plans' premiums “because there are so many moving parts.” The article notes health care experts did attribute part of the premium increases for employer plans' in 2011 to the ACA's requirements for more comprehensive plans.

In more recent years, the Kaiser foundation found that many American workers have kept down premium increases by moving into plans with higher deductibles.

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