The Associated Press factchecks a couple ‘Mediscare’ ads in Kentucky

As the midterm campaign gets underway, some familiar talking points come out again

Bravo to The Associated Press! As soon as dueling ads for Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and his challenger in the November election, Alison Lundergan Grimes, went up this week, AP reporters Adam Beam and Calvin Woodward were out of the gate, too. Their coverage quickly and clearly noted the shaky claims on which the “Mediscare” ads rested—and showed that campaign themes that dominated the mid-term elections in 2010 and the Obama-Romney match two years ago are back again.

The Grimes ad shows the candidate sitting with a man identified as a retired coal miner, Don Disney from Cloverlick, KY. Looking straight into the camera, he asks McConnell, “I want to know how you could’ve voted to raise my Medicare costs by $6,000. How are my wife and I supposed to afford that?” Grimes and Disney sit and wait for a bit, and at the end of the spot, she says, “I don’t think he’s gonna answer that.”

As the AP told readers, McConnell “cast no such vote.” The senator did vote for a bill in 2011 that proposed moving ahead with a plan crafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to privatize Medicare. Under such an arrangement, Medicare enrollees would have received a voucher, or “premium support,” to help cover the cost of private insurance. If their costs were greater, they’d have to pay the rest out of pocket, and analysts concluded at the time the arrangement would have eventually raised costs for some people on Medicare. But the bill, which died in the Senate, would have allowed current beneficiaries like Disney to keep their traditional benefits provided by the government. He wouldn’t have been affected at all—in fact, the proposed changes were scheduled to go into effect 10 years later. The AP’s explanation of all this was understandable, succinct, and simply pointed out what was wrong with the Grimes ad without a lot of caveats and cautions. 

McConnell’s ad, which appeared yesterday, also played fast and loose with the facts. The 30-second spot notes the factcheckers’ critiques of Grimes and then trots out a shop-worn campaign canard of its own—the one about Obamacare cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare. A female narrator says that “Grimes supports Obamcare, which cuts $700 billion from seniors’ Medicare. That’s how Obama and Grimes will pay for Obamacare.” Text on the screen ups the ante, declaring, “Obamacare and Grimes will pay for Obamacare on the backs of Kentucky seniors.”

Well, yes and no, as CJR and other factchecking operations have pointed out. The Affordable Care Act did cut some $700 billion from projected Medicare spending. The ACA reduced payments to hospitals, doctors, and other medical providers, and these funds were used to pay for subsidies to the uninsured. But the law did not cut benefits for seniors and people with disabilities, even if Republican pols continue to say or imply that it did. Again, the AP points this out clearly, and even adds, “some of the savings are going to improved preventive care and other benefits under Medicare.”

The Grimes-McConnell contest is one of the hottest races in the country this season, and given this week’s ads in Kentucky, it looks like Medicare is once again in play. The campaigns have apparently decided that scaring seniors plays well on the stump. In the last two campaigns when Medicare been Topic A, too many daily stories quoting the candidates have allowed their remarks to stand without comment or explanation. If explanatory journalism and persistent factchecking were ever needed, it was then and will continue to be needed heading into fall. The AP’s treatment of the Grimes and McConnell ads is a good model to follow.

And if you’re looking to review some of the basics, check out our “How to report on Medicare” archive here.

Related content:

Medicare vouchers explained

Medicare and the $716 billion bogeyman

Medicare, Paul Ryan, and beyond: a primer

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: , , , , , ,