At Medicare's 44th Birthday Party, GOP Shows Up Just to Gorge on Cake and Play 'Pin the Blame on the Donkey'
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
Yes, Medicare is 44 years old today, and while that's not exactly a milestone, the political atmosphere in which the celebration takes place this year elevates the importance of this birthday party to symbolic status.
The fact that Medicare got one year older during a historic struggle for comprehensive healthcare reform is something akin to being born on Christmas: Everyone's partying, but you're not sure it's really about you.
Single-payer advocates are holding up Medicare as an example of how government-run healthcare can work better than private healthcare. "Public option" proponents point out how Medicare functions as a partial competitor with private plans as evidence that such an option should exist for everyone.
Such arguments may be a bit opportunistic, but at least they make some logical sense. The fact that the GOP is trying to use the occasion of Medicare's birthday to insist on the destruction of heathcare reform, on the other hand, is both opportunistic and nonsensically hypocritical.
Much like their crusade against the popular Social Security program, the GOP has always been anti-Medicare. Think Progress' Wonk Room compiled a list of prominent Republicans such as Ronald Reagan who opposed Medicare's creation 44 years ago by frightening people over "socialized medicine"and rationing. Hmmm, sound familiar?
But, due to the overwhelming popularity of Medicare, the argument that it should be dismantled is becoming tougher to make. Not only is Medicare popular, but it seems to actually work. Again from the Wonk Room:
Since 1965, "the health of the elderly population has improved, as measured by both longevity and functional status." In fact, according to a study from Health Affairs, life expectancy at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 and the chronically disabled elderly population declined from 24.9 percent in 1982 to 21.3 percent in 1994."
Prior to Medicare, "about one-half of America's seniors did not have hospital insurance," "more than one in four elderly were estimated to go without medical care due to cost concerns," and one in three seniors were living in poverty. Today, nearly all seniors have access to affordable health care and only about 14 percent of seniors are below the poverty line.
So, if it works and people like it, how is the GOP using Medicare to campaign against healthcare reform? Easy: They're arguing that Obama is going to pay for reform by cutting Medicare.
Obama said this week that he would not make cuts or changes to Medicare, but that he wanted to make it more efficient. But that doesn't stop the GOP from stoking the fear seniors have over what would happen if they lost Medicare, and connecting it with healthcare reforms now on the table.
Granted, there is a good reason people are afraid of Medicare disappearing: Republicans have been threatening to kill it for decades. They've suggested cutting funding and/or privatizing Medicare pretty much since it began. Now, all of the sudden, they are great defenders of the program.
In fact, were Obama's 2008 challenger Sen. John McCain now president, Medicare and Medicaid would have seen cuts of around 20 percent, or $1.3 billion over 10 years, in order to pay for the Arizona senator's proposed healthcare tax incentive fund.
Where Medicare doesn't work for patients, there's generally been conservative meddling. In an Institute for Public Accuracy press release today John Geyman -- author, professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Washington and past president of Physicians for a National Health Program -- gave Medicare a good bill of health on its 44th birthday. However, he said that the program would have fared better without privatization schemes such as President George W. Bush's Medicare part D prescription program:
The problem was soaring prices of prescription drugs. The result has been a bonanza for the drug and insurance industries. The new drug benefit was handed over to the private sector to manage, prices have continued up unabated, the government was prohibited from negotiating lower prices as the Veterans Administration does, and new subsidies were offered to private insurers for Medicare Advantage, private Medicare plans that seek out healthier Medicare beneficiaries.
The same forces are at work today as healthcare reform proposals make their way through Congress. Under pressure from industry and their lobbyists, the public plan has been watered down to a small and ineffectual option at best, if it ever survives to being enacted.
Yet, the GOP plan to convince Americans that healthcare reform will end Medicare seems to be working. There are several accounts of ordinary peopletelling the president and lawmakers to keep their sticky government "hands off my Medicare."
So if Republicans have historically done all they can to starve Medicare until it "withers on the vine", why is their argument working? As with most propaganda machines, a viral combination of fear and ignorance makes for excellent fuel.
Ignorance is especially helpful with here because healthcare is such a multifaceted issue and because no plans have been finalized. And, as Paul Krugman puts it, Americans hate government-run healthcare "because they don't know they have it."
Whipping up paranoia is something the GOP excels at, so there's no surprise that they would deploy their best fear mongerers against healthcare reform. But the extent of lying invective does have the power to shock. For example, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said on the House floor that Obama's plan would put "seniors in a position of being put to death by their government," a statement AARP Executive Vice President John Rother deemed a "cruel distortion." Furthermore, FactCheck.org debunked this wild claim of forced euthanasia earlier this week.
The false claims about Medicare and seniors are part of a larger strategy on the part of the GOP to spread lies about healthcare reform. Yesterday I wrote aboutefforts to re-brand the healthcare reform effort as "Obama Deathcare,"complete with false claims about private insurance being "outlawed." I've also recently written about the religious right's attempt to portray healthcare reform as including a mandate forcing pregnant women to have abortions on the government's dime.
Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Steve King (R-IA) both falsely claimed the plan would cover illegal immigrants. Republicans are also using immigrants and stretching statistics to make the numbers of uninsured seem minimaland unimportant.
And the list goes on. The GOP has had a robust back-and-forth with the Congressional Budget Office over the party's misinterpretation of the agency's analysis of healthcare plans making their way through Congress. Conservatives never seem to tire of the claim that the plans under consideration would make America just like Canada Jr. Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) made a video that inflates the price tag and lies about whom would feel the increase from a healthcare surtax on those earning more than $350,000 a year.
Now that we've got a recess to wait before anything gets finalized, you can bet conservative lawmakers are going to take these lies (likely along with a few we haven't heard yet) back to their constituents.
In the end, I suppose it should come as no surprise that Republicans would be willing to use Medicare misinformation to accomplish their own obstructionist goals, even on its 44th birthday. After all, they never liked the program anyway. But I hope the more than 45 million people who receive Medicare benefitswill remember who their real friends are.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS