Ig­nor­ing the facts of Medi­care

The Covington News - - Opinion - EU­GENE ROBIN­SON COLUM­NIST Eu­gene Robin­son is a Pulitzer Prize win­ning colum­nist and writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post. He can be reached at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON — Republicans and Democrats are be­ing equally nasty in their cam­paign rhetoric, but they’re not be­ing equally truth­ful. To cite one ex­am­ple, much of what the GOP is say­ing about Medi­care sim­ply isn’t sup­ported by the facts.

For­mer New Hamp­shire Gov. John Su­nunu, one of Mitt Rom­ney’s more pug­na­cious sur­ro­gates, al­most had a con­nip­tion fit Tues­day when CNN’s Soledad O’Brien pressed him on his as­ser­tion that Pres­i­dent Obama “gut­ted Medi­care by tak­ing $717 bil­lion out of it.” As Su­nunu knows but re­fused to ac­knowl­edge, this is not true.

The claim is part of an at­tempt to shore up a vul­ner­a­bil­ity Rom­ney cre­ated by choos­ing Paul Ryan as his run­ning mate. The bud­get that Ryan au­thored, and con­vinced House Republicans to pass, would even­tu­ally change Medi­care into a voucher pro­gram: se­niors would be given a cer­tain amount of money each year to buy health in­sur­ance.

If that amount isn’t enough to pay for the kind of cov­er­age you want or need — un­der Ryan’s lat­est plan, you could buy a pol­icy from a pri­vate in­surer or buy Medi­care from the gov­ern­ment — you pay the dif­fer­ence out of pocket. Ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, the av­er­age Medi­care re­cip­i­ent would pay an ex­tra $6,500 a year.

It doesn’t take a ge­nius to rec­og­nize the po­lit­i­cal prob­lem this causes for Rom­ney, es­pe­cially in states where older vot­ers are a key vot­ing bloc. The Rom­ney cam­paign de­cided to deal with the an­tic­i­pated Demo­cratic on­slaught by strik­ing first with the claim that it is Obama, not Rom­ney, who wants to take away your Medi­care.

Like many lies, this one uses a grain of truth as raw ma­te­rial. The Af­ford­able Care Act, oth­er­wise known as Oba­macare, slows the rate of growth of pay­ments to Medi­care ser­vice providers by more than $700 bil­lion over a decade. But no im­pact is felt by se­niors them­selves, whose ben­e­fits and costs re­main the same.

When O’Brien re­minded Su­nunu of these facts, he barked that she should “put an Obama bumper sticker on your fore­head.” But the claim that Obama had “gut­ted Medi­care” re­mained false, and O’Brien told Su­nunu: “You can’t just re­peat it and make it true, sir.”

Su­nunu knows that. He just wants the fo­cus to be on Rom­ney’s pledge to undo Medi­care “cuts” that aren’t re­ally cuts at all. The Rom­ney cam­paign knows that as long as peo­ple are try­ing to sort out the facts of this spe­cific al­le­ga­tion, they aren’t talk­ing about the real dif­fer­ences be­tween the two par­ties on the very na­ture of en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams such as Medi­care.

The fact is that Ryan’s plan — which Rom­ney has semi-en­dorsed and now can­not cred­i­bly dis­own — ef­fec­tively would “end Medi­care as we know it” — the phrase vot­ers will hear a bazil­lion times be­tween now and Elec­tion Day, es­pe­cially those who live in Florida. This is one piece of cam­paign rhetoric that hap­pens to be true.

Medi­care as we know it is a form of so­cial in­sur­ance, a guar­an­tee that cit­i­zens over 65 will have ad­e­quate med­i­cal care re­gard­less of how healthy they are or how much money they have. Medi­care, as the GOP wants it to be, is a voucher pro­gram that will be ad­e­quate for some se­niors and in­ad­e­quate for oth­ers.

Ryan prefers the term “pre­mium sup­port” to de­scribe his plan. But as Gertrude Stein surely would have noted, a voucher is a voucher is a voucher.

Ev­ery­one agrees that some­thing has to be done about sky­rock­et­ing costs for Medi­care and also Med­i­caid, the health care pro­gram for the poor. Obama took the first step to­ward “bend­ing the curve” of cost in­creases with the Af­ford­able Care Act. Leave aside, for the mo­ment, the fact that Rom­ney now pledges to undo the progress Obama has made. The ques­tion is what do we want Medi­care to be?

There is no rea­son why Medi­care can­not be re­formed as a so­cial in­sur­ance pro­gram. Other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries pro­vide univer­sal health cov­er­age for their en­tire pop­u­la­tions for a frac­tion of what we spend in the U.S., and those other coun­tries achieve equal or bet­ter health out­comes. Surely we can continue to do so for those of re­tire­ment age — if we still want to.

The ques­tion to ask Rom­ney is whether he be­lieves in so­cial in­sur­ance — whether his ob­jec­tions to the way Obama has be­gun to re­form Medi­care are fis­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal. Ask him and Ryan whether they agree that mar­kets are of­ten ef­fi­cient but sel­dom com­pas­sion­ate. Ask him whether he sees the free mar­ket as our ser­vant or our mas­ter.

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