Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Medicare 'cuts' and a talking point that won't die

The talking point that keeps going and going.

This is the tale of a talking point that won’t die.

If you've followed the campaign, you've heard it: To pay for Obamacare, President Barack Obama would harm seniors by cutting $716 billion from Medicare.

A line that began in some obscure congressional debate and got a few media mentions has now been repeated by dozens — maybe hundreds — of politicians.

In the early days, it appeared in news releases from members of Congress in Florida, Arizona or Texas. It was initially used by members of both parties, but it's now a favorite Republican line repeated by countless lawmakers and candidates — even presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

It's been so widely used that it's tough to get an accurate count. A Google search for "Obamacare cuts Medicare" yields 68,800 results.

The verbs vary. The 2010 overhaul "cut," "gutted," "robbed," "stole," "raided" and "slashed" $700 billion from Medicare, politicians have said, "reducing benefits" for the elderly.

PolitiFact has rated many versions of this claim since the health care bill was working its way through Congress in 2009 — and most often rated it Mostly False. We've found that it's a reduction in the future growth of Medicare spending, not a cut in existing programs, and it came largely from Medicare Advantage and other areas that would not affect traditional Medicare benefits.

Yet the talking point lived on, cited repeatedly in interviews, speeches, debates, op-eds, news releases, emails, campaign websites, Facebook postings and innumerable TV ads.

PolitiFact National and our state partners fact-checked versions of this claim more than 30 times — from candidates, campaign committees, interest groups and super PACs.

Birth of a talking point

As Democratic lawmakers crafted a health care bill, they worked to make it "deficit neutral" — building in provisions to reduce spending and raise revenue so that expanding Americans’ health coverage wouldn’t add to the federal debt.

They targeted Medicare, which accounted for about 12 percent of the federal budget, calling for cuts in payments to providers and other changes to trim the program’s growth. The Congressional Budget Office said savings would add up to just over $500 billion over 10 years.

Early news coverage talked about "Medicare and Medicaid cuts" to help fund the "health overhaul." But journalists often included valuable clarifying language, such as how the law achieved its savings and over what period of time.

For example, Dana Bash, CNN’s senior congressional correspondent, explained, "About half the money, $500 billion, would come from cutting government spending. Options include cuts in payments to hospitals who treat uninsured payments, since broad insurance coverage would ease the burden on hospitals, cuts in the Medicare Advantage program, Medicare through private insurers, and other changes to the way the government pays hospitals and doctors for Medicare."

Republicans started to sound the alarm in July 2009. And they weren’t the only ones.

The Washington Post reported some Democrats, such as Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, "expressed doubts" about "Medicare cuts that could add up to $500 billion over 10 years."

The talking point machine revved up. Context gave way to scare tactics, just in time for the 2010 midterm elections:

• The new health care law "will cut $500 billion from Medicare. That will hurt the quality of our care." (Mostly False)

• U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare, threatening "thousands of Oregon seniors and their access to their current coverage." (Mostly False)

• California Sen. "Barbara Boxer voted to cut spending on Medicare benefits by $500 billion, cuts so costly to hospitals and nursing homes that they could stop taking Medicare altogether." (Mostly False)

Republicans kept sounding the alarm even though their own budget from Rep. Paul Ryan took advantage of the same Medicare savings.

And when the Congressional Budget Office updated its estimate, politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, parroted the same claims with a new number: $716 billion.

Obama "robbed Medicare (of) $716 billion to pay for ... Obamacare," Romney told 60 Minutes in August 2012. (Mostly False.)

That month, Ryan joined the Republican presidential ticket. Instead of tamping GOP enthusiasm for the claim, the campaign kept spreading the talking point: "Obama is the one who should be worried, because he has cut $700 BILLION from Medicare to pay for Obamacare."

Why do such talking points thrive? Presumably because they work.

That also explains why they’ve been used by the traditional operators of the Medicare scare machine: Democrats. In 2008, for example, a politician attacked Sen. John McCain for supporting Medicare changes that were similar to the ones ultimately used in Obamacare.

That politician was an Illinois senator who would soon become president.