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Medicare Myths Mask Real Threats

August 17, 2012
Weekly Columns

You know election season must be in full swing when "Mediscare" accusations start flying.  Unfortunately, the heated rhetoric obscures the most relevant and startling point of all: Medicare will go bankrupt by 2024.  This is not speculation or a partisan claim; it is a fact documented in this year's annual report from the Medicare and Social Security Trustees.

Rather than confront this reality and communicate honestly with the American people about options to save the vital program, the Obama campaign has chosen the time-honored tradition of sowing fear and division. 

The scare tactics this year are even more outrageous now that Mitt Romney has selected as his running mate a congressman who has actually put forward a plan to reform Medicare.  As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan has a responsibility to develop a budget plan that reduces our $1 trillion yearly deficits and $15 trillion total debt.  This urgent task simply cannot be accomplished without addressing the almost two-thirds of federal spending consumed by entitlement programs, and Ryan's budget blueprint acknowledges this fact. 

The structural reforms proposed by Ryan would modernize the almost 50-year-old Medicare system, reduce costs, and give patients more choice and control.  In Ryan's words, the reforms would provide "more help for the poor and the sick and less help for the wealthy."  There would be no changes in benefits for those age 55 or older.  One of the most recent reform proposals is named the Ryan/Wyden plan because it was written with liberal Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

It's hard to believe this bipartisan, reasonable plan is the same one Democrats claim will "end Medicare as we know it" -- a slogan so false that independent fact-checking organization PolitiFact named it 2011's "Lie of the Year."  However, the reliance on the fabrication becomes more understandable when President Obama's own record on Medicare is examined.  Instead of leading on this crucial issue by proposing specific reforms like Ryan's plan does, the president would empower 15 unelected bureaucrats to cut Medicare.  With no requirement to answer either to Congress or the American people, this Independent Payment Advisory Board would be completely unaccountable and its actions virtually irreversible. 

President Obama and his supporters also try to obscure the fact that he cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare.  They argue that the cuts come from payments to health care providers, not directly to benefits.  Considering the primary function of Medicare benefits is to pay physicians for medical care, this is hardly much of a distinction.  Regardless of the terminology, the policy has the potential to significantly decrease quality of care for seniors.  According to the Washington Post, a recently released study found a direct link between provider payment rates and quality of care.  Economists examining the effects of Medicare cuts enacted in 1997 found that "every $1,000 in lost Medicare was associated with 6 to 8 percent increase in mortality rates" at the surveyed hospitals.  The researchers concluded that "hospitals with bigger cuts were more likely to scale back staffing, especially among nurses." 

These facts may be alarming, but saving Medicare requires a serious debate based on facts, not distortions.  The real threat to Medicare is maintaining the status quo.