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Republican Ron Johnson attacked Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold on Medicare in this mailing. Republican Ron Johnson attacked Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold on Medicare in this mailing.

Republican Ron Johnson attacked Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold on Medicare in this mailing.

By Dave Umhoefer October 8, 2010

Ron Johnson says Sen. Russ Feingold cut Medicare by $523 billion

In his campaign against U.S. Sen Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson has made health reform the centerpiece of his campaign -- slamming Feingold’s support for "ObamaCare" in speeches, news releases and TV and radio ads.

Johnson says he wants the whole law repealed.

In a direct mail piece to voters, Johnson criticizes Feingold as being the decisive vote for cuts to Medicare, an especially hot-button topic for senior citizens. Republicans have been using the approach across the country against Democratic incumbents -- just as Democrats have tried to tag Republican candidates as out to gut Social Security.

The eye-catching cover of Johnson’s mailer pictures three whispering women, all seniors, with the tagline: "Do you know Russ Feingold’s dirty little secret..." On the flip side, one headline reads "Ron Johnson will fight to preserve your benefits."

The other, in a tarnished brown: "Russ Feingold cut Medicare by $523 billion."

It goes on to say: "Feingold cast the deciding vote on ObamaCare, which made cuts to Medicare that will impact 100,000 Wisconsin seniors utilizing the Medicare Advantage program."

It cites the Christmas Eve 2009 vote in which Feingold joined the 60-vote majority, all Democrats, to move along the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The final vote, in March of 2010, was 56-43. Feingold voted also yes on the final bill.

So does the law "cut" more than $500 billion from Medicare?

The national PolitiFact site, and various state sites, have ruled repeatedly on the Medicare question. They have found the health care law does not take $500 billion out of the current Medicare budget, but rather is an attempt over 10 years to slow the program’s future growth by curtailing spending by that amount.

Medicare spending will still increase -- the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects spending will reach $929 billion in 2020, up from $499 billion in actual spending in 2009.

There are no cuts to guaranteed Medicare benefits.

In fact, there is an expansion of some benefits, such as the gradual closure of the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Program. The law also tries to improve the program for beneficiaries by paying more for preventive care.

How do other groups view this question?

The leading senior advocacy group, AARP, took the position that the health care measure was on balance a good thing.

"The health care law strengthens Medicare by protecting and improving your guaranteed benefits and cracking down on waste, fraud and inefficiency," a statement on the organization’s website says. "It also identifies savings that will keep Medicare financially stable for 12 years longer than if the law hadn't been passed."

But America’s Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry trade group, has raised concerns about the impact of the changes on benefits, which will vary by insurer.

Under the measure, the second-biggest savings category is Medicare Advantage ($136 billion), making up about one-quarter of the $523 million in "cuts" referred to in the mailer. About 25 percent of people covered by Medicare have chosen Medicare Advantage.

Medicare Advantage, often called Medicare's HMO, is an optional program in which the federal government pays private insurance companies a set rate to treat Medicare recipients. As PolitiFact National has noted, the Advantage program was conceived as a cost-containment measure on the theory that competition among private plans would drive down costs. That has not happened, and Medicare Advantage actually costs the government more.

President Barack Obama and groups such as AARP have said it's time to bring the costs of Medicare Advantage in line with the cost of regular Medicare.

Advantage beneficiaries would see fewer benefits -- not in the basic package of guaranteed benefits, but in extras that Medicare Advantage offers its patients, such as gym memberships. Some plans pay the patient’s monthly Medicare premium, which can amount to about $100.

Aside from the Advantage reductions, other savings as part of the $500 billion will come from higher insurance premiums for seniors making $85,000 or $170,000 per couple, a new panel to oversee reimbursement rates, and smaller-than-expected increases in payment rates to hospitals and other service providers each year.

Johnson cites two media accounts to back his claim on the $500 billion.

One, a March 2010  Washington Post story, noted a "total reduction in projected spending on the (Medicare) program to more than $500 billion over the next decade." That story is highlighted prominently in a related Johnson TV ad. Johnson campaign spokeswoman Sara Sendek also pointed to a CBS News web report, also in March 2010, that references "$500 billion in Medicare cuts over the next decade."

Both clearly note the amount is spread over 10 years, with the Post story labeling it "a reduction in projected spending" -- elements Johnson did not include in his flier or the TV ad, where the same cut is mentioned.

A final issue is whether Feingold "cast the deciding vote" on the new law.

In December 2009, the bill needed 60 votes to prevent Republicans from thwarting passage. But any of the 59 others who voted yes could also be labeled the decisive vote. In any case, Feingold was not a last-minute convert to the bill. His support was not in question.

So, let’s review the Johnson claim.

In a campaign mailer and other venues, Ron Johnson says Feingold supported a measure that cut more than $500 billion from Medicare. That makes it sound like money out of the Medicare budget today, when Medicare spending will actually increase over the next 10 years. What Johnson labels a cut is an attempt to slow the projected increase in spending by $500 billion. Under the plan, guaranteed benefits are not cut. In fact, some benefits are increased. Johnson can say Feingold was the deciding vote -- but so could 59 other people running against incumbents now or in the future.

We rate Johnson’s claim 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.

Our Sources

Ron Johnson Senate campaign, TV ad,"Listening," September 18, 2010

U.S. Senate roll call vote, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dec. 24, 2009

PolitiFact National, America’s Health Insurance Plans ad,Oct. 16, 2009

PolitiFact National, Crossroads GPS ad, Oct. 4, 2010

PolitiFact National, 60 Plus Association ad, Sept. 20, 2010

PolitiFact Oregon, Scott Bruun ad, Oct. 2, 2010

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Affordable Care Act update, 2010

Washington Post, House Leaders Announce $940 billion health-care compromise bill, March 19, 2010

CBS News, Health Care Reform Bill Summary,March 21, 2010

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Projected Medicare Expenditures, Aug. 5, 2010

New York Times, Senate Passes Health Care Overhaul on Party-Line Vote, Dec. 24, 2009

Urban Institute, How Will the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Affect Seniors?, July 1, 2010

AARP, Health Care and You, July 2010

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Ron Johnson says Sen. Russ Feingold cut Medicare by $523 billion

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