‘Mediscare’ claims persist. Does calling them ‘debunked’ suffice?

A humble suggestion for reporters covering a recycled Medicare campaign claim

Well, what do you know. Republicans are trying their luck yet again with campaign ads telling voters that the Dems and Obamacare cut $700 billion from Medicare. The implication, of course, is that seniors—a group such ads have resonated with in the past—will be so scared of benefit cuts they will vote once again for the GOP. It’s a potent message of fear to people afraid of the increasing health care expenses that come with age. Old canard or not, it worked in Congressional races in 2010 and 2012, and popped up again last month in the Senate race in Kentucky.

In his column yesterday in The Washington Post, Greg Sargent reports that the “Obamacare cut Medicare” ads are back for the Arkansas Senate campaign that pits incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor against Republican Congressman Tom Cotton. The election is close, and Pryor hasn’t been shy about running on a pro-Obamacare platform. In his ads, Pryor says:

No one should be fighting an insurance company while fighting for your life. That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions.

Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group is rolling out a $2.5 million ad campaign, which tells voters:

On TV, Mark Pryor talks about the health care law he helped pass. What Pryor doesn’t say is that law was Obamacare. Or that it cuts over $700 billion from our Medicare and will cut benefits seniors rely on.

Sargent points out that this cuts claim has been “debunked completely” and dismantled by factcheckers for years, which brings up an important point for journos who will surely write about these ad wars in the weeks ahead. Will the public be persuaded by simply saying the claim has been debunked? Or should reporters explain what the law did and did not do? It takes way too long to explain the caveats that lace the factcheckers’ explanations. Rove’s short message has the upper hand. But a short graph or two might add the needed context for voters to think twice about his message. So, as we’ve explained many times, Obamacare cuts to Medicare never affected the basic benefits seniors receive. While it’s true the law called for cuts to Medicare Advantage plans, the cuts have never materialized. In fact, when Medicare proposed cuts to those plans, powerful lobbying campaigns by insurers turned them in to increases, and seniors who choose them this fall will still get plenty of extra benefits like eye glasses and gym memberships. The cuts were aimed at healthcare providers in the form of reduced reimbursements (which hospitals have tried to reverse). This point never makes it into the ads, but should be in the stories we write.

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How to Report on 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: , , , , ,