Political Hay

The Fear We Need

Barack Obama scares up votes with health care horror stories.

By 10.21.08

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Arguably, the most consistently successful stratagem ever devised by the Democrats is their perennial campaign to frighten the elderly into voting for them by loudly accusing the GOP of plotting the demise of Social Security. Every election cycle, with the grim inevitability of Greek tragedy, they promulgate this hoary fable. This year is no different, of course, except that the Democrat standard bearer has expanded the usual narrative of Republican perfidy to include scary chapters intended to exacerbate unease among seniors about the future of Medicare and make younger voters nervous about their employer-based health plans.

The latest addition to Obama's oeuvre of horror fiction is his claim that John McCain plans to cut Medicare benefits. In a recent speech in Roanoke, Virginia, he made the following assertion about how the Arizona senator would pay for his health care reform proposals: "Senator McCain would pay for part of his plan by making drastic cuts in Medicare… $882 billion in Medicare cuts to pay for an ill-conceived health care plan, even as Medicare already faces a looming shortfall." According to this tale from the crypt, McCain is to Medicare as Freddie Krueger is to sleeping children.

Like Nightmare on Elm Street, however, Obama's Medicare story lacks verisimilitude. Indeed, it is so preposterous that CBS News, not exactly a charter member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," characterized it as one of the most egregious lies of the presidential race:

"Senator Barack Obama's newest claim (also made in a television ad) that Senator John McCain's health care plan will cut $882 billion in Medicare health care benefits for seniors, has to rank among the biggest whoppers of the whole campaign." CBS goes on to say, "It's a poorly calculated estimate drawn from a suspect report, and the disputed figures in question don't represent benefit cuts."

McCain's health care plan does include Medicare reform, as any responsible proposal must. It envisions initiatives involving payment reform, making sure that Part-D premiums for wealthy seniors are not subsidized by the middle class, reducing drug costs by allowing greater use of generics, promoting treatment models that better manage chronic conditions, encouraging the adoption of health care IT, and cracking down on Medicare fraud. Obama's spooky yarns notwithstanding, the McCain plan contains no provision that would reduce benefits or restrict eligibility.

Mere facts have, however, proven no impediment to Obama's creativity. In fact, he provides an additional frisson to Medicare beneficiaries by charging McCain with repeatedly voting against legislation intended to shore up Medicare: "Senator McCain has voted against protecting Medicare 40 times." CNN, another news organization hard to characterize as pro-Republican, checked into this claim and found it to be misleading: "Several of the votes Obama's campaign cites are 'sense of the Senate' resolutions…. Several would have had no practical impact, and some were votes on large spending bills that had Medicare as one component of them." CNN nervously adds that a few of the votes "can be construed" as voting against Medicare, but offers no data to support that assertion.

In addition to scaring the pants off the elderly with scary stories of reduced Medicare benefits, the Obama campaign is trying to frighten younger voters by telling them McCain wants to take away everyone's employer-based health insurance. We heard this tale from Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate: "You're going to have to pay -- replace a $12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped." And Senator Government himself repeated it in the final presidential debate: "For about 20 million people, you may find yourselves no longer having employer-based health insurance."

 

AS HE DOES with his Medicare yarns, Obama takes considerable license with the truth in his "millions will be dropped" narrative. Some estimates do suggest that as many as 21 million people would voluntarily opt, during the next ten years, to purchase insurance in the revitalized non-group market that McCain's regulatory reforms would create. Millions of consumers may well trade in their gold-plated employer-based coverage for cheaper, stripped-down plans. There is absolutely no factual basis, however, for the claim that 20 million people would suddenly be dropped from their employer-based health insurance.

The ostensible source of the "20 million" figure is a "study" published in Health Affairs, that has been widely criticized for its problematic methodology and outright bias. Thomas Miller of the American Enterprise Institute writes that the study's methodology was based on "questionable, embedded assumptions about how markets might work at least in theory, if not in practice, and that then failed to deal with the actual structure of the McCain plan." As to its objectivity, John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis issued the following indictment: "Somewhat unusual for an article in Health Affairs, this piece is incredibly biased."

This kind of bias has not been restricted to the pages of Health Affairs. Many members of the establishment media have followed suit. The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, for example, parroted the story about how McCain will finance his health plan: "He's going to pay for it by cutting Medicare and Medicaid -- which, at the levels he's discussing, might seriously weaken the program." Repeating the "millions will be dropped" tale in the New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote that "20 million Americans who have employment-based health insurance would lose it under the McCain plan." Cohn and Herbert are by no means alone in their willingness to promulgate Obama's health care horror fiction.

That such people are willing to abet Obama in this project is ironic in the extreme. These are the same people who have repeatedly denounced the Bush Administration for maintaining power through "fear-mongering." And their support of Obama is based on his claim to be a new kind of politician. But his frequent lies about John McCain's proposals and his willingness to deploy shopworn Democrat scare tactics make it abundantly clear that he is just another cynical pol hoping to frighten voters into supporting him. If the voters are foolish enough to elect this man, they will soon discover that his policies constitute the real horror story.

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About the Author

David Catron is a health care revenue cycle expert who has spent more than twenty years working for and consulting with hospitals and medical practices. He has an MBA from the University of Georgia and blogs at Health Care BS.