A Medicare Memo to Campaign Reporters

Tailing Mitt on Medicare and Social Security, too

Dear Colleagues:

I have just returned from a reporting trip to Southeast Arkansas, where the folks I visited have very little. They certainly don’t have good health. Some are crippled by bad knees messed up from on-their-feet jobs. Most have diabetes. Some have had strokes. They are lucky, though, that they have Medicare. Without it, they probably would have died ages ago.

Last week, speaking to business leaders in Detroit, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned that Medicare-eligible Americans ought to wait longer for their benefits. The media glossed over Romney’s remarks; but I kept thinking about them as I was chatting with a woman who had one leg, amputated because of complications from diabetes. And they stayed in my mind as I talked to another woman—a 67-year-old who had a stroke last year, and had had to quit working as a presser for a local dry cleaner ten years ago, when she was 57. She had a seizure, and a hot press fell on her hand. A long scar shows how her work life ended. She qualified for a Social Security disability check—all of $795 a month that’s been her only income ever since. How on earth could someone like her pay for medical care if she had had to wait a few more years?

Romney’s views on entitlement spending have been clear for quite some time. A few weeks ago, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said: “We’re going to have to recognize that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, not for the current group of retirees, but for coming generations. And we can’t afford to avoid these entitlement challenges any longer.” We’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security, he said, and let seniors “have the freedom to choose between Medicare and a range of private plans.”

Hmmm, I thought. Seniors already can choose between Medicare and private plans. I asked my Arkansas host how these private plans were being sold in her county. She told me insurance agents selling private plans had teamed up with local pharmacists, who told seniors that if they didn’t sign up for a particular agent’s policy, the pharmacists whom they trusted said they wouldn’t be their pharmacists any more. Well, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know what most of the seniors did. Some of you reporters out there may want to look into those kinds of shenanigans, and ask Romney about them next time you hear him on the stump.

If reporters did ask tough questions, it wasn’t reflected in their reports. The Detroit Free Press, where I learned how to be a reporter, listed a bunch of bullet points telling readers what Mitt would do if he got the job. One noted that he would raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits for younger people and index the growth in benefits for wealthy retirees to inflation instead of wages. The Freep didn’t tell us what that meant. It would not have been that hard to call some Social Security expert at the U of M to find out if Romney was talking about the “progressive” price indexing that George W. Bush proposed. Progressive price indexing would cut benefits and dramatically change the program.

Most local papers seemed to rely on AP dispatches, which varied in length and quality. One story gave a few more details about Mitt’s Social Security and Medicare plans, saying they would be indexed to longevity, so that the benefits could only increase as fast as life expectancy. In plain English, that means smaller benefits. All this stuff about indexing is hard to grasp, I know, but with these terms floating around, it’s easy to conceal what really could happen. I hope you sort this out before reporting on Mitt’s entitlements program the next time he brings it up.

The takeaway for me from coverage in such papers as the Lansing Journal, the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and the MetroWest Daily News, which covers parts of Massachusetts, was that they focused on things other than the nuts and bolts of Medicare. Even though the MetroWest Daily News headlined its story “Romney would alter Medicare,” the piece didn’t actually include that much about Medicare. Instead, it focused on whether Romney would win in Michigan and Arizona, and whether he could withstand the rise of fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Some stories served up quotes from ordinary people about whether or not they would vote for Romney. One woman said it’s vital to defeat Obama and repeal Obamacare, because otherwise death panels and bureaucrats will be making life and death decisions. Oh, not that canard again!

A CNBC blog picked up an AP story which noted that Mitt had said the federal health reform law was too expensive; that it raised taxes and cut $500 billion from Medicare. Not another half truth! For the fourteenth time, the law did cut payments to hospitals and to sellers of Medicare Advantage plans, but it did not cut basic benefits for seniors. Yet the GOP keeps using the number to scare seniors into voting for them. The blog post linked to a CNBC primer on Medicare and Medicaid, which at least offered some basics. For the record, the CNBC primer didn’t correct that misperception.

Please indulge me in a digression. Research from respected sources like the Kaiser Family Foundation has challenged the notion that raising the age for Medicare benefits saves money. Kaiser found that lifting the age from 65 to 67 would reduce Medicare spending by $7.6 billion. But before you run with that number, you need to know that cost would merely be shifted to employers and individuals, who would have to pay more for health coverage to replace the lost Medicare benefits. It would mean spending $10.1 billion in the private sector to save $7.6 billion for the government. How’s that for bending the nation’s cost curve?

So you see, guys, there’s soooo much more of this story you can tell that will help your readers, viewers, and listeners understand that the changes to Social Security and Medicare will affect them all. But if they want to decide at the voting machine if these changes are important to them, they have to know what they are. That’s where you come in. As the Romney horse gallops on, I will be on the lookout for your coverage. If you should need any background on either Social Security or Medicare, you might want to click on our Campaign Desk archive and poke around.

All best,

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , , ,