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By Julie Kliegman February 28, 2014

Pryor ad warns 'every senior in Arkansas' will see increased Medicare costs from Cotton votes

The main takeaway from a recent campaign ad from Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., aside from a prominently featured Apple logo, is that Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton is changing Medicare as we know it.

A Feb. 5 Arkansas television ad features Courtney, a young woman who’s "never been really political."

"It says here Cotton voted in Congress to change Medicare into a voucher system that will increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas," Courtney said, pointing to her laptop. "Thousands of dollars every year. My grandma and grandpa can’t afford that, and neither can my parents."

Since Courtney is a self-professed politics noob, PolitiFact figured we’d jump in and see if she has her facts straight. We wanted to look at what changes to Medicare Cotton supported and how those changes would affect seniors.

Cotton’s folks didn’t respond to our request for comment.

What Cotton voted for

We’ve previously fact-checked the Pryor campaign on whether or not Cotton voted to turn Medicare into a "voucher system." We rated that Mostly True. Republicans typically prefer the term "premium support" to "voucher system," but the concept is the same.

Cotton voted for the budget proposal, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in March 2013. The plan, which didn’t become law, called for issuing flat payments to seniors. Seniors would then have the choice to either purchase traditional Medicare coverage or private insurance.

The value of the payment would be either equal to the second-cheapest private plan available in a given area, or the cost of traditional Medicare -- whichever is cheaper.

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The reform wouldn’t affect anyone currently 55 or older. Over years, though, under Ryan’s plan, the age for Medicare eligibility would’ve increased from 65 to 67.

Pryor’s campaign spokesman also pointed out that Cotton voted for an alternate House budget proposal from the Republican Study Committee. That proposal’s Medicare plan was similar to Ryan’s, but would affect all individuals under age 60, as opposed to 55. The change would’ve taken effect in 2019, five years sooner than Ryan’s.

It’s up for debate among experts whether or not current seniors would ultimately see cost increases years down the road as vouchers roll out to future seniors. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report in 2012 about the economic impact of a potential Ryan voucher system, but didn’t offer a specific prediction about how costs would change, as our colleagues at also noted.

We should note that by supporting the Republican Study Committee’s budget, Cotton voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So had that proposal become law, seniors would lose benefits they get under Obamacare, like free preventative cancer screenings. But Pryor’s ad implies that the voucher system alone would affect costs like this for all seniors, rather than the Affordable Care Act.

We also know repealing the health care law would re-open something called the "doughnut hole" that Obamacare is closing. Essentially, that would increase the cost of prescription drugs for seniors who qualify for Medicare Part D. Not all seniors are eligible for that program, though, so this change alone wouldn’t affect "every senior."

Under either proposal, instituting a voucher system wouldn’t have directly changed coverage for current seniors on Medicare, who are age 65 and older. That’s a far cry from the ad’s claim that a voucher system would increase costs for "every senior."

Our ruling

Pryor’s campaign ad said, "Cotton voted in Congress to change Medicare into a voucher system that will increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas." Cotton did vote for a voucher-like system under two different budget proposals.

But it’s misleading to suggest that the plan would definitely increase expenses for every senior. The research isn’t conclusive, and we can’t predict the future. But even the voucher proposals go out of their way to leave current Medicare beneficiaries alone. It's not at all clear that every senior in Arkansas would see increases in out-of-pocket expenses, including people like Courtney’s grandparents. So we rate the claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Medicare in Ryan’s 2014 budget," March 15, 2013

Congressional Budget Office, "The long-term budgetary impact of paths for federal revenues and and spending specified by Chairman Ryan," March 2012, "Old Medicare claims in Arkansas Senate race," Feb. 21, 2014

Heritage Foundation, "Premium support: Medicare’s future and its critics," Aug. 7, 2012

House Budget Committee, "The path to prosperity: a responsible balanced budget," March 2013

Mark Pryor campaign, "Courtney," Feb. 5, 2014

NPR, "FAQ: What retirees and seniors need to know about the Affordable Care Act," Oct. 11, 2013

Phone and email interviews with Erik Dorey, Mark Pryor’s campaign spokesman, Feb. 26 to 27, 2014

PolitiFact, "Rep. Tom Cotton voted to make Medicare voucher system, says Sen. Mark Pryor," Nov. 19, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Paul Ryan says his plan would not affect current Medicare benefits," Aug. 24, 2012

Republican Study Committee, "Back to basics: a budget for fiscal year 2014," accessed Feb. 27, 2014

U.S. House of Representatives, roll call vote 86, March 20, 2013

U.S. House of Representatives, roll call vote 88, March 21, 2013

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Pryor ad warns 'every senior in Arkansas' will see increased Medicare costs from Cotton votes

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