False balance and the Medicare scare

Who’s been telling the truth in Florida?

Last Thursday the president made a campaign stop in Florida, and—surprise, surprise—he talked about Medicare. Or at least he talked a little bit about Medicare. And in in the name of political balance, the press screwed it up—a lot.

Obama’s brief remarks about Medicare were a swipe at Mitt Romney for embracing a voucher plan, which would give Medicare beneficiaries a fixed amount of money to buy an insurance policy from private insurers. Romney’s idea would transform Medicare from social insurance into private insurance. Interestingly, those government subsidies would function much the way healthcare subsidies will work for the uninsured under the Affordable Care Act. And, crucially, if the subsidies don’t cover the cost of a policy seniors want, they’ll have to pay the rest out of pocket.

So Obama has a point. Earlier this year Henry Aaron, a Medicare expert at the Brookings Institution who once championed vouchers for Medicare but later changed his mind, explained to CJR what can happen:

A critical question is whether enrolees will be able in the future to afford coverage as good as Medicare provides. If the cost of health care rises more than five percent, they (beneficiaries) will face a dilemma: suffer a progressively deeper loss of health insurance coverage or pay continually larger amounts for coverage that does not change. Under most so-called ‘premium support’ plans, the voucher is tied to an index that has in the past grown much more slowly than the cost of healthcare. That gap adds up fast, and can quickly erode coverage.

But instead of using its space to explain more about how vouchers—sometimes called premium support—would work, the media dove into he said/she said campaign reporting mode, telling audiences about Obama’s claims and Romney’s counterattack.

On its blog, ABC News reported the president “is hammering his opponent’s plan” and repeated some of the points Obama used to drive home his Florida message. “If the voucher isn’t worth what it takes to buy health insurance in the private marketplace, you’re out of luck. You’ve got to make up the difference. You’re on your own,” the president told the crowds.

Then the blog swiveled to the other side. “Yet Romney has argued that it’s Obama’s management of Medicare that effectively ends the program as it’s now known, claiming he has failed to address the program’s solvency—something Democrats have dubbed a ‘voucher.’” Romney’s policy adviser, Lanhee Chen, got a quote in saying that Romney has a plan to preserve Medicare for today’s seniors while strengthening it for future generations. How’s that for empty rhetoric?

Dean Baker, who writes a media and economics column for the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted on his blog—correctly—that the Congressional Budget Office had concluded, after years of research, that a voucher system would raise the cost of providing Medicare equivalent policies. “In this context,” Baker wrote, “President Obama’s assertion that Romney’s plan would leave seniors unable to afford traditional Medicare is not just an empty claim. It’s a fact.”

The New York Times in its coverage of the Florida stop also did the he said/she said shuffle. After offering readers two graphs of Obama’s remarks, it gave two graphs to Romney, reporting “Mr. Romney’s campaign called the president’s statement ‘dishonest attacks’ that mischaracterized his plans for Medicare.” After noting that Romney gave three interviews to Florida radio stations “to counter the president’s visit,” the Times went on to quote Romney saying on a Tampa station that “the president is extraordinarily out of touch with how America’s economy works.” Then it presented a lot of filler about a poll that found running essentially neck and neck in Florida, weak comments from a political science professor, and speculation that Florida voters are skeptical of Obama’s health law. This stuff added nothing to people’s understanding of the Medicare issue.

Other press coverage of Obama’s Florida visit wasn’t much better, but coverage in The Miami Herald stands out as particularly poor. It’s one thing to settle for a he said/she said story, which the paper certainly did. It’s another to get the facts wrong.

The Herald reported that Obama’s health plan “trims $500 billion from Medicare Advantage over a decade.” It doesn’t. The health reform law did cut some $500 billion from the Medicare program—but almost all of it in the form of payment reductions to hospitals and other medical providers. The cut to sellers of Medicare Advantage plans was $136 billion, not the $500 billion the Herald told its readers. To explain: With a Medicare Advantage plan, seniors get their benefits from private insurers, which in turn are paid by the government. The government had been paying insurers more than it costs to provide the same benefits under traditional Medicare. The health reform law eliminated those extra payments on the grounds they are a waste of money.

There were no cuts in the basic hospital and doctor benefits under Medicare, but that has not stopped Republicans from using the $500 billion “cut” to scare seniors and win points.

When the press gets it wrong, it compounds the misinformation the public gets in the heated rhetoric of the campaign. In my next post, I will explain more about what the Affordable Care Act did and didn’t do to Medicare.

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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: , , , , ,