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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Robocall Rumble

It’s the battle of the voice mail messages.

First, Sen. John McCain launched a robocall this week, claiming that spending cuts to Medicare in the Senate health care bill would eliminate “vital Medicare coverage for our seniors” and promoting his amendment to strip the bill of all those Medicare cuts. He recorded a similar call for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Thursday night, the liberal group Americans United for Change launched a counter-call, which tells recipients: "You may have received a political call that tries to frighten seniors — a call that claims health insurance reform will cut Medicare benefits. That is just false." 

Americans United for Change told us that more than half a million of its robocalls will go out through the weekend, targeting 55-year-old and older Democrats and independents in Colorado, Arkansas, Nebraska and North Dakota – the same states blanketed by the NRSC. The call says that "AARP has said the health care bill doesn’t reduce any guaranteed Medicare benefits – none." It’s true that AARP said that. However, as we’ve said before, benefits are likely to be reduced for some of the 10 million seniors who now choose private coverage under the Medicare Advantage program. MA now pays private insurance companies roughly 14 percent more than traditional fee-for-service Medicare per beneficiary, and the bill seeks to eliminate the disparity. As a result, seniors on Medicare Advantage could see about $43 per month less in extra benefits than they now receive, according to the Congressional Budget Office; the added benefits usually include things like gym memberships, eyeglasses or reduced copayments.

The robocall alludes to this in saying, "[H]ere’s the thing, the government pays insurance companies $1.14 to do the same things for seniors that Medicare itself can do just as well for a dollar. Health care reform would end that waste." Whether the extra money spent is "waste" is a matter of opinion, but no Medicare Advantage customers would receive less in benefits than other Medicare recipients. And it’s also true that the bill would add some benefits for all seniors, such as preventive care that is completely free.

McCain’s amendment was defeated, but we’ll let readers be the judge as to whether the proposed changes to Medicare Advantage would, as his robocall said, eliminate "vital Medicare coverage."

Meanwhile, McCain mentioned us on the floor of the Senate Dec. 2 in response to criticism that he once proposed cutting Medicare spending to finance his health care overhaul proposal. (He did.) McCain maintained that his plan wouldn’t have cut benefits, and as back-up, he cited us, quoting (correctly) from our Oct. 20, 2008, report on false ads launched by the Obama camp: “On Oct. 20, FactCheck.org says, quote, he accuses McCain of proposing to cut benefits. Not true. … FactCheck.org says, quote, these claims are false, based on a single newspaper report that says no such thing.”