Our View: Throwing Mud, Muddying the Waters on Medicare

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Medicare can be cured. But the longer the nation waits, the more bitter the medicine will be. The main Medicare trust fund is projected to run out of money just 12 years from now.

To restore this important program to good health, we need an honest debate about the alternatives and trade-offs of the various ideas that have been proposed. We’re not getting it.

Two recent claims by the presidential candidates illustrate what voters are getting — distortion:

President Barack Obama “robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay for a new risky program of his own that we call Obamacare.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan‘s “voucher plan could raise future retirees’ costs more than $6,000.”

Robbing Medicare?

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate, and Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who is his running mate, have made much in recent days of the claim that the Affordable Care Act is made possible by draining $716 billion from Medicare.

“Here’s what the president won’t tell you about his Medicare plan, about Obamacare,” Ryan said at rally in Florida last week. “The president raids $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for the Obamacare program.” Romney used the phrase “robbed Medicare” in an interview with “60 Minutes.”

It’s just not true.

The health care law did not cut Medicare benefits, as Romney/Ryan imply. And the law assumes that the overall Medicare budget will increase — not decline. PolitiFact recently scored the Romney/Ryan claim “mostly false.”

Obamacare tries to slow the growth of spending in the program. At the time the law passed, it was estimated that the changes enshrined in the Affordable Care Act would save about $500 billion in Medicare spending over 10 years. That figure has grown to the $716 billion because as Medicare spending grows, so do potential savings.

Under the ACA, Medicare Advantage, which is run by private insurers, takes a hit. So do hospitals if too many of their patients are readmitted or if they don’t hit other benchmarks outlined in the law. The theory is that the government can encourage health care providers to become more efficient while leaving in place the coverage that Medicare recipients have.

We think there is good reason to believe that cutting payments to providers may not, in the end, save that much, as The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson pointed out in a column on Monday. The risk is that providers who see their Medicare rates cut will find a way to provide more services. But that’s not the argument that Romney and Ryan are making.

Their claim is wrong.

Ryan plan will cost seniors?

An ad for Obama’s campaign, ironically called “Facts,” leaves out an important one.

The ad makes this claim:

“Experts say (Ryan’s) voucher plan could raise future retirees’ costs more than $6,000” while text flashes on the screen that says, “Raise seniors’ costs by $6,400 a year.” Obama has repeated the charge at rallies.

Is it true? Well … it’s hard to say.

The source for the claim is a Congressional Budget Office report on the original Ryan Medicare plan. But the ad fails to say that Ryan has revised his plan. As PolitiFact noted when it analyzed the claim, the new plan is “slightly more generous in how fast it allows subsidies to grow as health care costs increase, while still keeping spending lower than current projections.”

We believe the CBO analysis of the original plan is accurate; it showed that seniors’ out-of-pocket costs would more than double to about $12,500. PolitiFact rated the ad’s claim as “mostly true,” noting that Obama’s campaign is using the latest available analysis and that Ryan hasn’t supplied enough information to do a new one.

But there’s no question that Obama is stretching the truth. No one can say for sure how Ryan’s plan will affect out-of-pocket costs. It’s reasonable to assume they would rise under Ryan’s plan, but the CBO is careful to note in its report that what happens depends “on the evolution of the health care and health insurance systems over time, which is hard to predict.”

Now there’s a statement everyone can agree with.

In both of these cases, politicians who know better are trying to scare voters. They are throwing mud — and muddying the waters in the process. It’s a neat political trick, but it does nothing to advance the public’s understanding of a critical national issue. Medicare can be restored to health — but only when the political class finally decides to work together to find a solution.


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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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