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Politicians love seniors. It's a bloc that stays put, pays attention and, most importantly, votes.
So it's no surprise that the over-65 crowd figure prominently in elections. In Oregon's 5th Congressional District, Republican challenger Scott Bruun is accusing Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., of voting to cut $500 billion from Medicare, and hurting seniors.
In Bruun's first television ad, "Broken," he says: "I believe that $500 billion in cuts to Medicare is wrong, and hurts our seniors." In his second ad, "Seen," he goes even further: "The Kurt Schrader record. $500 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Schrader's vote threatens thousands of Oregon seniors and their access to their current coverage."
Really? Thousands of seniors? At risk of losing their current health care?
A quick check shows this is a common complaint among Republicans. Remember, in March not one Republican in Congress voted for President Barack Obama's controversial health care overhaul.
PolitiFact National has already debunked the notion that seniors will be hurt by changes to Medicare called for by Obama's health reform plan.
Bruun's campaign statements give the impression that less money will be spent on seniors, that $500 billion will be lopped from Medicare immediately, and that seniors are in danger of losing health care benefits. All that is misleading.
To back up, Medicare is the basic federal health plan for seniors 65 and older. Medicare Advantage is a more generous version that some seniors choose to buy from private providers.
It's true the federal government will reduce the growth of future spending on Medicare over the next decade. The reforms to Medicare will result in $500 billion in savings over 10 years. But the law does not eliminate $500 billion out of the current budget for Medicare. There are no cuts to guaranteed Medicare benefits.
In fact, spending on Medicare will actually increase over the next decade, reaching $845 billion in 2019, up from $499 billion in actual spending in 2009, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. Without reform, Medicare spending in 2019 was projected to be $943 billion.
So then the question becomes, does a reduction in future spending mean a reduction in quality or quantity of medical services?
No, says Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser foundation's Medicare Policy Project.
The $500 billion in savings will come from a mix: Higher insurance premiums for wealthier seniors, reductions in payments for Medicare Advantage plans, a new panel to oversee reimbursement rates, and smaller-than-expected increases in payment rates to hospitals and other service providers each year. (Neuman provides an easy to understand 19-minute tutorial on the Kaiser Family Foundation's website.)
Payment reforms to Medicare Advantage programs are long overdue. The programs are popular, but cost more. Reducing the payments to the private companies that provide the programs is projected to help trim $136 billion from Medicare Advantage over 10 years.
But it's not all reductions and savings -- something else Bruun doesn't flesh out.
On the plus side, health care reform means Medicare recipients will get more preventive health care services, such as wellness visits, and they won't face the "doughnut hole" gap in prescription coverage left by the original Medicare Part D.
Cynthia Chilton, a Multnomah County counselor with Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance, said elder advocates are watching, but the situation looks OK for now. Premiums for next year will not skyrocket, she said, and seniors will get free preventive care visits starting in January.
She rejects the claim that changes to Medicare will harm seniors.
"No, it doesn't mean that seniors will be hurt. It might be better," Chilton said.
Finally, we note that as evidence, the Bruun campaign offered a July 2009 story by The Oregonian, which includes this sentence: "The health care bill written by House Democrats calls for $500 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years to help offset the enormous cost of providing care to 45 million uninsured Americans."
The context of the story was that Oregon providers could suffer disproportionately if payment rates go down. That's because services here are cheaper than in other states. The story ran in print with the headline "Oregon health care hit for being too efficient."
More significantly, it was written before Oregon's congressional Democrats wrangled higher Medicare reimbursements for providers in Oregon in negotiations for their yes votes on reform in March. Overall, the health care reforms are designed to reward efficiency -- and that may be a good thing for seniors here.
PolitiFact Oregon's view is that Bruun's statement contains some element of truth -- the $500 billion figure. But it ignores critical facts that would give voters a different impression.
The ad conflates actual cuts with decreases in future spending, over the next decade for a program expected to expand, and it fails to mention any of the benefits to seniors under the new Medicare program.
We rate this statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
The Oregonian, "Health care reform could cut Medicare, hurt Oregon," July 20, 2009.
The Oregonian, "Medicare deal reached, clearing way for Oregon Democrats to vote for health care reform," March 20, 2010
PolitiFact.com, "Medicare ‘cuts’ in the health care law will hurt seniors, says 60 Plus Association," Sept. 20, 2010
Kaiser Family Foundation, Health Reform and Medicare: Overview of Key Provisions, July 2010
Interview with Cynthia Chilton, a Multnomah County counselor with Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance, Sept. 24, 2010
Kaiser Health News, "Health law expands Medicare coverage of preventive care," Aug. 10, 2010
E-mails from Alee Lockman, Scott Bruun campaign spokeswoman, Sept. 22, 2010 and Sept. 28, 2010
Scott Bruun campaign, "Seen," Sept. 28, 2010
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