Parsing Romney on healthcare

Chris Wallace gets a C minus

Before Chris Wallace got to the soft stuff of his Fox News Sunday interview last week with The Family Romney and before we learned that Ann loves Costco, Wallace zoomed in on some serious matters, like healthcare. What did viewers learn? One thing: that the candidate continues to offer contradictory positions on health reform. And that Romney exhibits a finely honed talent for staying on message even if it stretches the truth. And that Wallace did not push back against his misinformation, leaving it to stand uncorrected.

Wallace quickly got to the point, asking Romney how he would answer Obama’s charge that the Dems “offer more support, more choice to women when it comes to abortion or rape or birth control or women’s healthcare.” Romney’s answer was puzzling. He praised his Massachusetts health plan—you know, the one he has run away from while repudiating its cousin, the Affordable Care Act, which he has pledged to repeal.

With regards to women’s healthcare, I’m the guy that was able to get healthcare for all the women and men in my state. They’re just talking about it at the national level. We actually did something and we did it without cutting Medicare and without raising taxes, number one. I’m very proud of what we did—and the fact that we helped women and men and children in our state.
Wallace did not examine those claims, and he should have.

• “They’re just talking about health reform at the national level.” Really? Congress passed the Affordable Care Act more than two years ago and some provisions are in effect.

• “Without cutting Medicare?” As a governor championing reform in the Bay State, neither he nor the state legislature had the authority to cut Medicare. Medicare is a federal program; states have nothing to do with it except maybe to regulate some Medigap policies.

• “Without raising taxes?” In 2008, two years after the law passed, Massachusetts raised tobacco taxes to help fund health insurance subsidies for those eligible for them under the reform law. The state also raised co-payments and premiums for the coverage they received.

Romney reinforced his Medicare assertion: “Number two,” he said, “we did it [covered everyone] without cutting Medicare, which obviously affects a lot of women. The way the president cut Medicare $716 billion for current retirees.”

Wallace did want to talk about the GOP claim that Obama took $716 billion from Medicare, noting that Medicare’s trustees have said the cuts/ budget savings called for by the health reform law prolong the life of the Medicare hospital trust fund by a number of years. So how would Romney keep it solvent, considering that his premium support plan—aka vouchers—would not kick in for a decade, Wallace wanted to know?

That’s a fair question. Romney did not answer.

Instead he bridged to his signature campaign promise—to repeal Obamacare. “I’m not just getting rid of Obamacare. I’m replacing it,” he said, while meanwhile arguing that the $716 billion in cuts were not done to save Medicare, but to pay for Obamacare.

“Restoring that money to Medicare does not make it less solvent, it makes it more solvent,” he said. That contention omits the point that restoring the budget cuts/savings would heap more out-of-pocket expenses on Medicare beneficaries, a point made last week by Jackie Calmes of The New York Times. In fact, neither Wallace nor Romney mentioned any effect of reversing the $716 billion cut/savings on beneficiaries themselves.

Wallace did ask for some examples of how Romney would keep the trust fund solvent. The candidate hemmed and hawed before coming up with this: “You’re asking for my plan for healthcare and it—it indicates a whole series of things. One is to have individuals be able to purchase their own insurance, and do so on a tax-advantaged basis.”

“But I’m talking about Medicare,” Wallace shot back. Romney replied that if you bring down the cost of healthcare, slow down health inflation, that helps Medicare.” In other words, Romney didn’t seem to have a plan—at least not one he wanted to talk about.

Wallace moved on, and the exchange goes down as a classic example of a Sunday morning news show. Interviewee says what he or she wants to say whether true or false. Interviewer may or may not push back, often allowing a falsehood to roll into public consciousness masquerading as a truth.

Trudy Lieberman’s “Medicare primer” is here. And an archive of her critiques of press coverage of the issue is here.

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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: , ,