MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Yesterday, on the program, we heard from a focus group of Republican and Democratic voters. The one thing they had in common was a sense of frustration with TV campaign ads. There are so many and their claims are so dubious that the messages don't seem to be gaining traction - at least not with the voters we talked to.
Now, we're going to focus on one charge now that's been appearing in ads by Republican candidates and outside groups that does seem to be taking hold. The claim is that the new health care law will hurt the popular Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.
And as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, that claim is highly debatable.
JULIE ROVNER: The conservative senior group 60 Plus has been running this ad in more than a dozen districts, including the Florida district of Democrat Allen Boyd.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: And Boyd also voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare.
Unidentified Woman #1: Five hundred billion in Medicare cuts hurts Florida seniors.
Unidentified Man: Send Allan Boyd a message...
ROVNER: While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running this ad, here aimed at Ohio Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Woman #2: And Kilroy voted to gut Medicare by $500 billion. More than 620,000 Ohio seniors face reduced benefits because of Kilroy. Government-run health care. Medicare cuts. Have you had enough?
ROVNER: Now, one thing about those ads - and most of the others - is true. The new health law would reduce Medicare spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years. But whether that will actually hurt or help the program or the patients it serves is far from clear cut.
Judith Stein is executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that provides legal advice for Medicare beneficiaries. She's convinced the ads are simply wrong.
Ms. JUDITH STEIN (Executive Director, Center for Medicare Advocacy): I've been representing Medicare beneficiaries for 30 years, and I know Medicare very, very well, and Medicare will be enhanced by health care reform provisions.
ROVNER: Stein says legislators who wrote the law knew better than to subject seniors to benefit cuts.
Ms. STEIN: The law specifically says that all the benefits currently available under Medicare Part A and B will remain intact. And in fact, it adds benefits.
ROVNER: Things like making preventive care free and closing the so-called doughnut hole in Medicare's prescription drug benefit. But there are those who strongly disagree that the law will help Medicare beneficiaries and defend the ads.
John Goodman is president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, which advocates for less government and more free markets in health care. He points to a study last spring from Medicare officials.
Mr. JOHN GOODMAN (President, National Center for Policy Analysis): And they have explained that if we follow the law, as it is written, that before the decade is out, Medicare will be paying doctors and hospitals lower fees than Medicaid. It means that seniors will be at the very end of the line, and they will have great difficulty finding doctors that will see them and hospitals that will take them.
ROVNER: Hospital and doctor groups, however, supported the law as it passed, because they expect the rest of the law will make up for the Medicare cuts.
Chip Kahn is president of the Federation of American Hospitals.
Mr. CHIP KAHN (President, Federation of American Hospitals): If we can get everybody covered, we can make the finances work.
ROVNER: In other words, what they'll lose in Medicare reductions will be made up by more people with insurance, people who currently come to the hospital with no coverage and whose care often goes unpaid.
Mr. KAHN: If we can close that gap successfully and the bill works in that way, then I can say with all confidence that Medicare beneficiaries have nothing to worry about.
ROVNER: So why all the attention to Medicare? Judith Stein of the Center for Medicare Advocacy says it's not exactly rocket science.
Ms. STEIN: Seniors vote and it's a way to get seniors to vote against those who supported health care reform.
ROVNER: But Stein warns that going after the senior vote using scare tactics can literally be dangerous.
Ms. STEIN: Because older people get very frightened. I was speaking at a session when Medicare Choice, the original private plans started pulling out in Connecticut, and an individual was so scared that he had a heart attack and died there because he thought that he and his wife were going to lose their health insurance.
ROVNER: So far, however, the political efforts appear to be working. Most polls show seniors are strongly opposed to the new health law.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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