Unions, AARP, Sebelius Fighting Scare Tactics Targeting Elderly and Medicare

Art Levine

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks about 'Health Care - the Republican Alternative' at the National Press Club last month in Washington, DC.

After all the fabricated claims about death panels,” the GOP and RNC Chairman Michael Steele are now masquerading as – don’t laugh – defenders of Medicare, protecting it against another fictitious threat they’ve concocted: $500 billion in Medicare cuts” that will be given instead to illegal immigrants and abortionists.

Fortunately, at Congressional town halls, in new TV ads, in a major report released yesterday by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and other myth-busting initiatives, union activists, Obama administration leaders, and the influential AARP are pushing back hard against the flood of misinformation that’s frightened seniors.

As Gerald Shea, the AFL-CIO’s top healthcare expert, has pointed out, They scare easily.” But he notes that the AFL-CIO-sponsored organization of retired union members and other activists, the Alliance for Retired Persons, has launched its own education and organizing campaign to counter the lies.

And they’re starting to make a difference: the group organized a turnout last Friday of 1400 mostly pro-reform activists at their health care forum in South Florida, featuring Reps. Robert Wexler and Alcee Hastings.

These leaders and groups are conveying the sort of common-sense truths about Medicare that AARP is offering in their new ads, like one pointing out how new reforms would save billions in waste and drug pricing overcharges:

In contrast to myth-making, the union-sponsored event in Delray Beach highlighted real answers offered to seniors clamoring for information: 

Florida Alliance President Tony Fransetta required questions in writing, avoiding the screaming matches that have disrupted town halls across the country. Saying retirees have a lot to gain from health care reform,” Alliance President Barbara J. Easterling told the audience of South Florida seniors that national health insurance reform, will make it easier for retirees to see a doctor, get a prescription filled, and afford long-term care.” 

She continued, I know that many older people are scared and confused, fearful of the change that health reform may bring. But this isn’t because they are bad people. They are scared and confused because lobbyists and places like Fox News are spending millions of dollars and spreading millions of lies to preserve the status quo.” 

Indeed, the group’s executive director, Edward Coyle, hailed yesterday’s report released by HHS, offering perhaps the most definitive look yet at the importance of health reform in protecting seniors’ access to care and saving Medicare. As summarized by the AFL-CIO NOW blog:

A new report finds that if health care costs are not brought under control through comprehensive health care reform, Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs will soon eat up more than one-third of a retiree’s Social Security benefits. A typical senior couple would need to save $300,000 for medical bills not covered by Medicare.

The report, America’s Seniors and Health Insurance Reform: Protecting Coverage and Strengthening Medicare, was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Says Edward C. Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans:

Today’s report shines a bright light on why retirees have a lot to gain from health reform. Moreover, it shows the wholly unacceptable medical and financial consequences of inaction.

I hope that deeply disturbing findings such as these will move the health care debate away from divisive, insurance industry-backed scare tactics and toward swift passage of a health care bill that will help older Americans.

The report notes that some of the rising Medicare costs can be traced to the extra subsidies paid to private insurance companies in the Medicare Advantage program — the Bush-era experiment in privatizing Medicare. It also points to soaring prescription drug costs, waste and fraud by some Medicare service providers for such things as home care.

The new report, plus progressive groups, leaders and independent fact-checking organizations, have all discounted the right-wing claims that health reform would somehow raid” Medicare – even as these same GOP leaders making the charges have long championed major cuts in Medicare, and attacked the program. (For instance, as Think Progress noted, Appearing on NBC’s Meet The Press as a Senate candidate in 2006, Steele said that cuts to Medicare absolutely’ had to be on the table’ in order to control runaway federal spending.’” 

Now, though, he and others are essentially spreading lies about $500 billion in cuts. But here’s the truth, as presented by the indepenedent media watchdog organization, Factcheck​.org:

False: Medicare Benefits Will Be Slashed

The claim that Obama and Congress are cutting seniors’ Medicare benefits to pay for the health care overhaul is outright false, though that doesn’t keep it from being repeated ad infinitum.

The truth is that the pending House bill extracts $500 billion from projected Medicare spending over 10 years, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office, by doing such things as trimming projected increases in the program’s payments for medical services, not including physicians. Increases in other areas, such as payments to doctors, bring the net savings down to less than half that amount. But none of the predicted savings – or cuts, depending on one’s perspective – come from reducing current or future benefits for seniors.

The president has promised repeatedly that benefit levels won’t be reduced, reiterating the point recently in Portsmouth, N.H.:

Obama, Aug. 11: Another myth that we’ve been hearing about is this notion that somehow we’re going to be cutting your Medicare benefits. We are not.”

Is he wrong? Not according to AARP, by far the nation’s largest organization representing the over-50 population. In a Myths vs. Facts” rundown, AARP says:

AARP: Fact: None of the health care reform proposals being considered by Congress would cut Medicare benefits or increase your out-of-pocket costs for Medicare services.

One of the most promising areas for savings is cutting back on overpayments to rapacious, fraud-peddling insurance companies that have taken part in the Medicare Advantage program, yet another Bush-era boondoggle. As the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Aging, Sen. Howard Kohl (D-WI), chastised insurance companies and its trade group, AHIP, last year: We can no longer wait for these companies to clean up their act while seniors continue to be duped and misled.”

Indeed, as Senior Journal reported, At the Aging Committee’s May 2007 hearing, officials representing the state insurance commissions from Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Georgia described a nationwide pattern of aggressive, and at times deceptive, marketing practices employed by Medicare Advantage sales agents.”

That’s part of the $500 billion in Medicare savings that Republicans and the insurance industry are fighting to halt by any means necessary.

No matter how false the claims, unfortunately, progressives will have to act fast to counter the misinformation that goes well beyond death panels” – and is all too widely believed. 

For instance, supporting the right-wing meme that Medicare will be raided of billions that will be given to illegal immigrants, is this startling NBC polling result, as reported by the AP last week:

THE POLL: 55 percent expect the overhaul will give coverage to illegal immigrants; 34 percent don’t.

THE FACTS: The proposals being negotiated do not provide coverage for illegal immigrants.

It’s little wonder that senior citizens are so wary of health care reform, and how vital progressive efforts to tell them the truth about reform proposals will be in shaping the future of legislation this fall. But with the political muscle of unions – the AFL-CIO alone says about 10,000 members have already attended 200 town halls – joined with that of millions of AARP members now being educated and mobilized, chances are brighter that far more senior citizens will support, rather than resist, change.

As Jordan McNerney, a spokesperson for AARP, points out, It’s a lot easier to scare people than to educate them – and that’s certainly had an impact. But we’re starting to see a turn-around.”

UPDATE: You can learn more about the politics of health reform and the potential fate of the public option in my interview with Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, on the BlogTalk web radio show I co-host, The D’Antoni and Levine Show.” Hickey’s the guest for the first 20 minutes.

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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