Policy-ish

Medicare Brochure Flap Prompts Sense of Déjà Vu

Democrats probably had this one coming.

Republicans are crying foul over language in a new brochure Medicare officials are sending to the program's 44 million beneficiaries. It details how the new health law will affect them and their Medicare coverage.

The new law "will keep Medicare strong and solvent. Your guaranteed Medicare benefits won't change — whether you get them through Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan," says a message from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the front page of the four-page brochure.

"This goes beyond propaganda and is blatantly political," said Rep. Dave Camp, the top GOP member of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee. "The administration has gone too far with this document and is doing a disservice to America's seniors who will soon have to deal with over one-half trillion in cuts to the Medicare program."

Said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "The flyer purports to inform seniors about what the health care bill would mean for them. Much of it directly contradict what that administration's own experts have said about the law. And all this is bought and paid for by the American taxpayer."

Sound familiar? That's because it's almost identical to the flap that took place six years ago, except with the politcal parties in opposite roles.

Back then, it was a Republican administration trying to educate seniors about a new Medicare prescription drug law passed with mostly Republican votes.

Democrats were so outraged at the time that they called for investigations by the Government Accountability Office and HHS's own inspector General into whether the campaign was inappropriately political.

"There is no purpose for these advertisements except to convince senior citizens that the Medicare bill is good for them. They are nothing more than propaganda for the Bush re-election campaign, using $23 million of the senior citizen's own money," said the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Supporters at the time defended the campaign as an educational effort. "You've got to get the information out," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who was then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key backer of the measure.

Similarly, Medicare officials now say their current mailing is justified. “It’s important that our Medicare beneficiaries get facts about this important new law timely so they can learn what stays the same and what will change and improve in terms of their benefits,” said Marilyn Tavenner, acting administrator of the agency that oversees the program.

Tavenner also said that it's important for the government to get out its own message early, because the agency has learned from implementing other major programs — including the GOP-supported drug benefit, "that unfortunately new opportunities for Medicare beneficiaries also bring new opportunities for scam artists to try and defraud seniors.”

In the end, those 2004 investigations did find the Bush administration's mailings about the new drug benefit "misleading." The GAO said the administration may also have illegally used public money to make what in effect were fake news reports about the law that did amount to propaganda.

A challenge on this front seems inevitable, n'est-ce pas?

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