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Turning Medicare over to profit-minded insurance companies hasn’t been too popular an idea with seniors, or soon-to-be seniors, who want to make sure the government health care program is around for them when they need it most.
So it’s no wonder that Democrats here and nationally are claiming that Republican Rob Cornilles, in the 1st Congressional District special election, wants to privatize Medicare. He faces Democrat Suzanne Bonamici in the Jan. 31 election.
Democrats’ statements have ranged from the specific to the general. Here’s an example: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tweeted Jan. 10, "Did you know Cornilles said he'd support turning parts of Medicare over to private insurance companies?"
The committee’s first ad against Cornilles showed these words on screen -- "Turning over Medicare to private insurance companies" -- while the announcer says that Cornilles supports "Turning over some of Medicare to private insurance companies."
And finally, a Jan. 18 press statement from the Bonamici campaign includes a quote from the Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens PAC:
"To set the record straight: Suzanne Bonamici is the only candidate in this election that Oregon seniors can count on to stand up for them in Congress and to protect – not privatize – Medicare and Social Security."
For the record, Cornilles denies he wants to privatize Medicare. Also, he does not support a system where the government would give seniors "voucher" money to get health insurance on their own a la the 2011 plan from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.,which was essentially a privatization plan.
What Cornilles has said is that he supports the new Medicare reform plan that Ryan has with Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, which calls for more private competition. Earlier, Cornilles also said that he supports a "hybrid" approach of both traditional Medicare and a private option.
But is that fair to call it outright privatization? And is offering a private option the same thing as turning over part of Medicare to private insurance companies?
Let’s not forget that Medicare currently contains a private option: It’s called Medicare Advantage. Seniors can buy plans from private insurers that wrap prescription, hospital and doctor coverage into one tidy package. Traditional Medicare, on the other hand, is a fee-for-services plan.
There are many reasons seniors may opt for one or the other, says Joe Baker, president of the nonpartisan advocacy Medicare Rights Center. In Oregon, about 40 percent of seniors have Medicare Advantage.
So if current Medicare already has a private option -- or is partially privatized -- what’s the big deal with what Cornilles has said?
Well, he likes the proposal put forth by Ryan and Wyden. Bonamici and other Democrats do not. And there seems to be some genuine debate over whether the proposal moves toward privatization.
"Basically, the Wyden-Ryan proposal would significantly privatize the Medicare program; it would retain the original government-run Medicare program as a plan you would choose, but that doesn’t mean that’s not privatizing Medicare," said Baker of the Medicare Rights Center.
"It would turn Medicare into a voucher-like program and move it away from a defined benefit (system) to defined contribution (system)."
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, whose political action committee has endorsed Bonamici.
He agrees with Baker that the Wyden-Ryan plan does not preserve traditional Medicare, because it offers vouchers for seniors to buy health care insurance, including traditional Medicare. The value of the vouchers would be capped, leaving seniors to shoulder the costs of any health care costs that outpace inflation, he said.
But Jennifer Hoelzer, Wyden’s press secretary, strenuously disputes the privatization assertion.
The proposal calls for a new system, sometime in the future, where private insurers would submit health plans with monthly premiums for review to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. The amount of money seniors would receive in "premium support" to pay for Medicare plans would be based on the second-cheapest plan or traditional Medicare, whichever is less expensive.
Should seniors pick a cheaper plan, they’d get to keep the difference, Hoelzer said. Should they pick a pricier plan, they would pay out of pocket as they do now.
Any legislation would retain strict controls over what private insurers can offer and traditional Medicare would be guaranteed one of the choices, she said.
We’ve digressed a bit but understanding the plan is important since so many people see it as a sign of Cornilles’ support of privatization.
Steve Weiss, president of the Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens PAC, acknowledges that Medicare Advantage is "partial privatization, but I think that Cornilles has upped the ante in that with his support of the Wyden-Ryan plan."
In the debate over the Wyden-Ryan plan, we see increased private options for Medicare, a program that already includes private options. We do not see the proposal as removing the government from providing Medicare.
Democrats assert that Cornilles wants to privatize Medicare -- all or part of it -- and turn it over to insurance companies while Bonamici wants to protect it. Nowhere has Cornilles said that he wants to privatize Medicare, and he has rejected a plan that calls for vouchers.
The statement contains a nugget of truth: Cornilles certainly wants more private competition in Medicare and it’s probably fair to say that he’s more enthusiastic than Bonamici about introducing even more private elements into Medicare.
But that doesn’t mean he wants to privatize Medicare. And his encouraging private competition doesn’t change the fact that Medicare currently has a private option. Those two factors are what we call critical facts that would give a different impression.
We rule the statement Mostly False.
NPR.org, "Wyden-Ryan Medicare Plan Shakes Up Politics More Than Policy," Dec. 15, 2011
Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s Right Turn blogger, "Paul Ryan-Ron Wyden: Bipartisan Medicare reform," Dec. 15, 2011
Matthew Yglesias of Slate, "Paul Ryan’s Medicare Scheme," Dec. 15, 2011
The Oregonian, "Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Paul Ryan propose overhaul of Medicare," Dec. 15, 2011
National Journal, "Ryan, Wyden Lay Out Medicare Reform Plan," Dec. 15, 2011
Office of Ron Wyden, "Wyden Spokesperson Responds to Criticism of Wyden-Ryan Plan," Dec. 15, 2011
Office of Ron Wyden, "Wyden & Ryan Advance Bipartisan Plan to Strengthen Medicare and Expand Health Care Choices for All," Dec. 15, 2011
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "Tea Party Candidate Rob Cornilles Running Away From His Extreme Record In New Ad," Oct. 26, 2011
Bonamici campaign, Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens PAC, "Statement by the Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens on Cornilles’ False Attack Ad," Jan. 18, 2012
Interview with Joe Baker, Jan. 19, 2012
Interview with Max Richtman, Jan. 24, 2012
Email from Mary Anne Ostrom, Cornilles’ campaign manager, Jan. 23, 2012
Emails from Amber Moon, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jan. 20-21, 23-24, 2012
Emails from Jennifer Hoelzer, Wyden’s office, Jan. 24, 2012
Interview with Jennifer Hoelzer and Elizabeth Jurinka, legislative assistant, Jan. 24, 2012
Interview with Steve Weiss, Jan. 24, 2012
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