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FACT CHECK: Health Insurers Cherry-Pick Facts

FACT CHECK: Health Insurers Cherry-Pick Facts

Courtesy Creative Commons

Associated Press/AP Online

October 14, 2009

WASHINGTON – In its assaults on a Democratic health care overhaul bill, the insurance industry uses facts selectively and mixes accurate assertions with misleading spin and an embrace of worst-case scenarios.

Take the 30-second TV spot that America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade group, was running this week in six states as the Senate Finance Committee approved overhaul legislation.

With a series of beleaguered-looking elderly people on camera, a soothing female voice says accurately that Congress has proposed cutting more than $100 billion from Medicare Advantage. The program, administered by private companies that provide extra services like eye and dental care, serves about a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries, more than 10 million people.

Then the announcer adds, “The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says many seniors will see cuts in benefits.” Words flash on the screen for three seconds saying, “50 percent reduction in extra benefits.”

The announcer’s words are true – but could be easily misunderstood to mean that basic Medicare coverage is at risk.

The budget office’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, has said that as a result of the proposed cuts, the extra benefits Medicare Advantage recipients receive would be halved over the next decade. But the ad leaves unspoken the fact that under the Finance bill, Medicare coverage for doctors, hospitals and other basic services would remain fully intact, with no reduction in benefits.

The ad also fails to mention the reason senators targeted Medicare Advantage for savings: The program is expensive for the government to administer, costing about 14 percent more per recipient than regular Medicare.

Robert Zirkelbach, the trade group’s spokesman, says the ad does not attack anyone.

“Seniors have a right to know how the current legislation will impact their health security,” he said.

Even so, the ad illustrates a favored tactic of Washington interest groups, which is to arouse worry about a bill among a key constituency – in this case, elderly voters.

“Call your senators. Tell them we need health care reform that protects seniors,” the announcer concludes.

A study the health insurers released earlier this week takes similar liberties. It concludes that Democrats’ health care effort would drive up premiums for insured people, based on cherry-picking convenient facts and perspectives. It’s an example of the classic lobbying tactic of commissioning a report that, predictably, reinforces an interest group’s views.

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