Columns » Ernest Dumas

Griffin's Medicare lies



Health-care law and policy in the United States form such an impenetrable maze that rational public discourse about them is impossible. When anything is believable, the world is safe for demagoguery.

As long as the subject is health care, a clever propagandist can turn a merciful deed into a foul one, transform a tribune of the poor into their tormentor, and turn a friend of the rich and powerful into the reincarnation of Mother Teresa.

All of that is evident in the propaganda campaign to turn Arkansans against President Obama's health initiatives and to re-elect Congressman Tim Griffin. The latter may prove not to be so easy.

Sunday, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette published a big ad praising Griffin for standing up to Obama and protecting low-income Medicare recipients from giant tax increases and benefit cuts planned by the president.

If that sounds a little implausible to you — you thought Obama was a bleeding heart who cared only about the poor and all the minorities and nothing about the well off and comfortable — you would be a little closer to the truth. The president has offered no plan, as the ad claims he did, to impose a tax of 23 percent or more on the elderly poor's prescription-drug benefits. The ad doesn't tell you how that is going to happen, but it is convincing if you are among the 99 percent of Americans who don't have a clue how the inscrutable amalgam of health insurance programs works.

The ad's purpose is to re-elect Griffin by juxtaposing him against Obama, who is unpopular in Arkansas. A secondary benefit is that the ads will make people fear the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

It also exemplifies the curse of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which gives great moneyed interests free rein to purchase any political office in the land. You don't know and can't find out exactly who paid for the big ad campaign. This ad says it is paid for by the National Taxpayers Union, a tax-exempt, nonprofit, "nonpartisan" organization that cannot by law pay for political ads. The ad neatly avoids urging people specifically to vote for Griffin; Griffin can shrug and say he had nothing to do with it.

The first round of ads appeared in August on the same theme, with the same format and the same portrait of Griffin. It was paid for by the American Action Network, which was formed last year by a group of conservative millionaires after the Citizens United decision. The ad campaign was delivered for 22 Republican congressmen who were deemed to be in some trouble because they had voted for the radical and unpopular Paul Ryan plan to phase out the current Medicare program and require the elderly and disabled to buy a private health insurance policy with the help of a shrinking government voucher. The ads are calculated to make the congressmen look like staunch defenders of Medicare and Obama like the real scourge of the elderly, poor and disabled.

The richest irony is that neither the American Action Network nor the National Taxpayers Union is a great supporter of Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. The taxpayer group was formed in 1969 to fight government taxing and spending after the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid. But the ad has to have some basis in fact, doesn't it? Surely they can't just make up a lie and get away with it.

The basis of the charge is the president's suggestions to the deficit-reduction commission in September about how to bring the deficit under control. Republicans and business groups had accused the president and Democrats of wanting to balance the budget by raising taxes on the rich and closing corporate tax loopholes without slashing the big entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So Obama delivered. The rich and tax-avoiding corporations would pay their fair share in higher taxes or closed loopholes and he would reduce Medicare and Medicaid outlays by $320 billion over 10 years, the latter still much less than Republicans demanded. The admen convert Obama's budget savings into taxes on the poorest Medicare recipients.

But no low-income Medicare recipient would pay any more taxes nor would their benefits be cut. The new health-care law actually expands their benefits significantly and the president's deficit proposal alters only one small part of it dealing with public health outlays. Millions of Medicaid recipients, however, would see their costs increased or benefits reduced, but no one defends Medicaid recipients — mainly nursing home residents, people on public assistance and children of low-income families. They typically don't vote.

In the impossible scenario that Obama's plan became law, the biggest cut in Medicare spending — 42 percent of it — would require the pharmaceutical companies to lower their rates to poor Medicare drug beneficiaries. The other big Medicare savings in the Obama proposal: New Medicare enrollees starting in 2017 would pay a little higher co-payment if they get home health services and people who buy a Cadillac Medicare supplemental policy, one that leaves them with no out-of-pocket costs, would pay a surcharge starting in 2017. The Obama plan is supposed to discourage people from buying the fancy policies and stem rising health-care costs.

That is the creed in the 2012 political environment. No good deed will go unpunished; no devious scheme will go unrewarded.

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