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Expert disputes health law claims

Two of the central promises of President Obama's health care overhaul law are unlikely to be fulfilled, Medicare's independent economic expert told Congress on Wednesday.

The landmark legislation probably won't hold costs down, and it won't let everybody keep their current health insurance if they like it, Chief Actuary Richard Foster told the House Budget Committee. His office is responsible for independent long-range cost estimates.

Foster made the assessment a day after Obama in his State of the Union message told lawmakers that he was open to improvements in the law, but unwilling to rehash the health care debate of the past two years. Republicans want to repeal the landmark legislation that provides coverage to more than 30 million people now uninsured, but they lack the votes.

Foster was asked by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., for a simple true-or-false response on two of the main assertions made by supporters of the law: that it will bring down unsustainable medical costs and will let people keep their current health insurance if they like it.

On the costs issue, "I would say false, more so than true," Foster responded.

As for people getting to keep their coverage, "not true in all cases."

The comments Wednesday were unusually direct because Foster generally delivers his analysis in complicated technical memos.

The White House responded to Foster's testimony in a blog post by Stephanie Cutter, a top aide helping to guide the political strategy on health care. "Once again, we disagree," Cutter wrote. "History shows that it is possible to implement measures that will save money for Medicare and the federal government."

Foster was a thorn in the administration's side throughout the health care debate, doubting that Medicare cuts would prove to be politically sustainable and raising other questions. An equal-opportunity skeptic, he also was a bane to the George W. Bush administration during the debate that led to creation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003.

Foster said analysis by his office shows that the health care law will raise the nation's health care tab modestly because newly insured people will get medical services they otherwise would have gone without.

As for people getting to keep their health insurance plan, Foster's office is projecting that more than 7 million Medicare recipients in private Medicare Advantage plans eventually will have to find other coverage. That would cut enrollment in the popular plans by about half.

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