The Smell Test: Fact-Checking Television Claims About Obamacare

By Erin Jordan, Reporter


By Lisa Kunkel

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - More than 49 million Americans, including more than 500,000 Iowans, are enrolled in Medicare.

It’s no surprise these folks are concerned about how the Affordable Care Act might affect the government’s insurance program for seniors and the disabled.

The Smell Test decided to fact-check rivaling television ads in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, where Democrat incumbent Bruce Braley faces Republican Ben Lange.

The first ad, sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has been airing in Eastern Iowa since Sept. 7.

Claim: “$716 billion. That’s how much Bruce Braley voted to slash from Medicare to pay for ObamaCare.”

This $716 billion plays prominently in Republican ads and speeches across the country. It comes from a July analysis from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation that predicts the health law will reduce Medicare spending by $716 billion from 2013-2022.

So is this number a cut to Medicare?

No, it’s not, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research group.

“Medicare spending will increase each year but at a slower rate,” Kaiser Health News reported Aug. 17.

“Before the health law was passed, Medicare was expected to grow by 6.8 percent a year for 2010 through 2019. With the health law, that yearly growth rate is projected to be 5.6 percent during that same time frame, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation,” the news network said.

The health law would reduce payments to hospitals and insurance companies, said Peter Damiano, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Iowa. The cuts are expected to be offset by increasing revenues from getting uninsured patients into Health Benefit Exchanges starting in 2014.

Claim: “64,000 Iowa seniors at risk of losing part of their Medicare benefits.”

Not true, Damiano said.

The NRCC is referring to cuts slated for Medicare Advantage, a program in which private insurance companies contract with the federal government to provide benefits, said Andrea Bozek, the group’s deputy communications director.

There are 64,000 Iowans in that program.

“These private plans were supposed to be lower cost than traditional Medicare, but have ended up costing more so their ‘overpayment’ is being reduced,” Damiano said.

Federal payments to Medicare Advantage would be reduced by about $156 billion, Kaiser Health News reports. The cuts would come from insurance companies and providers, not beneficiaries. So Iowa’s Medicare Advantage recipients would be safe unless providers decide not to offer services because of reduced compensation.

Claim: “And Washington bureaucrats making health care decisions. Not families and their doctors.”

The ad refers to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a 15-member panel appointed by the president to reduce Medicare spending. If Congress doesn’t approve the board’s recommendations, it must choose alternate cuts of the same size.

The board is prohibited from recommending changes in premiums, benefits, eligibility and taxes “or other changes that would result in rationing,” according to a 2011 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Braley’s rebuttal ad, which started airing earlier this week in Eastern Iowa, lets former President Bill Clinton do the talking.

Claim: “What the president did was cut unwarranted subsidies to insurance companies.”

By “unwarranted subsidies,” Clinton likely is referring to the Medicare Advantage cuts. This private-run program has proved to be more expensive than Medicare, but it’s only Clinton’s opinion that payments to the program are unwarranted.

Claim: “There were no cuts to benefits at all. None.”

The health law would reduce payments to providers, such as hospitals or nursing homes, but the law does not spell out any benefit cuts to beneficiaries. However, Richard Foster, chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, warned in 2011 testimony before the House Budget Committee that reduced payments to providers may cause some to stop providing services.

Our score

We score the NRCC ad as mostly false.

While the $716 billion figure is correct, it’s not a cut to existing Medicare programs or benefits. The Independent Payment Advisory Board will likely include some bureaucrats, as the Republicans noted, but it also will have doctors and patients. The board is prohibited from rationing health care.

Braley’s ad featuring Clinton scores a “true” from the Smell Test, but it’s important to note that even the experts don’t know exactly how the health care act will play out over the next few years.

Reported and researched by Erin Jordan and Adam Carros, edited by Jeff Tecklenburg.

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