At It Again

The conservative 60 Plus Association is attacking Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio by dredging up old exaggerations we’ve seen plenty of times before. The claims about the health care law are starting to sound like a broken record: The group claims it’s a “health care takeover” (false) and that it “cuts $500 billion from Medicare” (misleading). This also isn’t the first time the group has gone after Brown with misleading material.

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The ad attacking Brown says that the senator voted for “President Obama’s health care takeover that Ohioans overwhelmingly reject.” As we’ve said many times, the law doesn’t allow the government to “takeover” health care. It’s true that it expands Medicaid eligibility and provides subsidies to lower-income persons to help them purchase insurance — private insurance, that is. In fact, the law greatly expands business for those private insurance carriers by requiring nearly everyone to have coverage or pay a penalty. In short, it builds on the well-established system in the U.S. of primarily employer-provided insurance. This isn’t a single-payer system like some European countries or Canada have.

But what about Ohioans rejecting the law? That refers to a November 2011 vote on a state amendment that said residents couldn’t be forced to purchase insurance. Sixty-six percent of those going to the polls voted in favor of the amendment. A late February USA Today/Gallup poll of voters in 12 swing states, including Ohio, backed up the anti-individual-mandate sentiment: 76 percent of swing state voters, and 75 percent of voters nationwide, said the mandate was unconstitutional. Voters are more divided on whether the law should be fully repealed: 53 percent of swing state voters, and 50 percent nationwide, favored or strongly favored repeal if a Republican wins the White House this year.

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It wouldn’t be an attack on the health care law if we didn’t hear something about cuts to Medicare, a claim we’ve written about again and again. That’s in the ad against Nelson. It says the law “cuts $500 billion from Medicare to pay for new government programs.” But that’s not a slashing of the current Medicare budget, as viewers may be led to believe. Instead, it’s a reduction in the future growth of spending over 10 years. Most of those savings come from a reduction in the future growth of payments to hospitals and other providers (not physicians), and a reduction in payments to Medicare Advantage plans to bring those payments in line with traditional Medicare. (MA plans have been paid more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.) As a result, some MA beneficiaries could lose extra benefits that they receive under the higher-paid plans — such as free gym memberships or eyeglasses. The law also adds new benefits for Medicare beneficiaries, including free preventive care and increased prescription drug coverage. The ad is correct, however, in saying the money is earmarked for use elsewhere: The law is paid for in part with those Medicare savings.

Who Cast ‘a Deciding Vote’?

The 60 Plus ad against Nelson also claims that he “was a deciding vote for the health care law.” That’s a stretch. We suppose any vote for the law could technically be called a “deciding” one, but Bill Nelson wasn’t a pivotal vote any more than any other senator. It was another Nelson — Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska — who was one of the last senators to sign on to the bill and give Democrats enough votes to pass it, a fact that Bill Nelson highlighted on his Facebook page.

Other ads, including several from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have claimed that other lawmakers — Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana — “cast a deciding vote” for the law. We think it pushes the bounds of accuracy to say anyone who voted for it was “a deciding vote.”

In a similar vein, the ad against Brown criticizes him for voting for “every bailout proposed by Bush and Obama.” That may be true, but the legislation in question passed with bipartisan support. The ad lists the October 2008 Senate vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program under President Bush. That bill passed on a 74-25 vote, with a majority of Republicans supporting it. Brown also supported a 2008 bill to loan money to U.S. automakers, though the legislation failed in the Senate. Bush then loaned automakers money from the TARP funds.

Under the TARP legislation, Congress could block the release of the second half of the appropriated funds, if both houses voted to do so. A 2009 resolution to stop the release of the money failed in the Senate just before Obama took office, but Brown was not present for that vote. While the Obama administration did release some TARP funds, including loaning billions more to automakers, there was no bailout vote under Obama.

Also, the ad implies the so-called “bailouts” added significantly to the debt, but that’s not the case at all. The ad says that Brown “helped our national debt increase more than $11 trillion by voting” for the bailouts. But TARP is expected to cost taxpayers only $32 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with $11 trillion in debt, which is the current amount of debt held by the public. (The total debt, including money the government owes to itself, is $15.7 trillion.) The debt has not “increased more than $11 trillion” since Brown took office in January 2007, which is the impression the ad may well leave with voters.

Exaggerating the Jobs Picture

The ad attacking Nelson puffs up Florida’s unemployment numbers when it says, “almost 1 million out of work.”

That’s a generous rounding up of the current numbers for Florida. For April 2012, the most recent figures available, 803,646 persons were unemployed in the Sunshine State, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number out of work was above 1 million from October 2009 through January 2011. But the situation has improved since then.

The ad against Brown, however, is correct in saying that “more than 400,000 Ohioans are out of work,” while an on-screen graphic says “431,000.” The April 2012 figures show that 431,318 Ohio residents are unemployed.

Finally, the ads both say that the senators supported the “failed” stimulus. They both voted for it, but it’s a matter of opinion whether it “failed” or succeeded. We’ll note that while the unemployment rate went up after the stimulus was passed in February 2009, the CBO has estimated that it would have been even higher without the law. Whether the stimulus did enough is something readers can decide for themselves.

– Lori Robertson

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