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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

It’s Groundhog Day for Fact-Checkers

Patriot Majority USA, a Democratic political action committee, taps the same old playbook from summer 2012, dredging up all-too-predictable Medicare and health care claims in attacking Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a potential 2014 Senate candidate.

The group’s ad, launched with the Senate Majority PAC, claims that Cotton supported a plan that “essentially ends Medicare” and costs “some seniors $6,000 more a year.” Sound familiar? We debunked those same distortions from this very same Democratic group last July — we’re only a week shy of publishing this story on the same day we posted last year’s. The ad also throws in the convoluted claim that Cotton, by voting to repeal the Affordable Care act, was “voting Congress taxpayer-funded health care for life.”

Cotton, an Army veteran and lawyer who’s a freshman in the House, hasn’t declared his candidacy, but Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor faces a potentially tough reelection race in 2014.

So, the target for Patriot Majority and Senate Majority PAC is new; the tactics, not so much. In fact, as Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker, said in writing about this ad, all three major fact-checking organizations (FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com and The Fact Checker) have previously debunked these claims.

Let’s start with the claim that Cotton was “voting Congress taxpayer-funded health care for life.” Actually, Cotton cosponsored and voted for a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which requires members of Congress and their staffs to get health insurance through the exchanges created by the law. If the ACA were to be repealed, members of Congress and their staffs would continue to get their health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, an exchange-like program that offers a choice of many private plans to more than 8 million federal employees and retirees.

In other words, one impact of repealing the law would be that Congress would continue getting health insurance from the FEHB program, which was created in 1959.

It’s true that federal government retirees can continue to receive insurance through the FEHB program as long as they’re eligible for an immediate annuity and were enrolled in the program for at least five years before retirement. And the government pays a good chunk of federal employees’ premiums: an average of 72 percent. It’s largely “taxpayer-funded,” just as most work-based coverage is largely employer-funded. But that’s expected to still be the case once members start getting insurance through the exchanges. There’s concern on Capitol Hill that the transition won’t be that smooth, but congressional staffs are expected to get the same benefits, simply from a different insurance source.

Medicare Memories

As we mentioned, nearly one year ago, we fact-checked the claims that lawmakers supported a plan to “end Medicare” that would have cost seniors an additional $6,000. (And the claims were old even then — the “end Medicare” claim made our “Whoppers of 2011” list.) The reference is to the budget plan from Rep. Paul Ryan — but the “end Medicare” quote is taken out of context, and the $6,000 claim pertains to his plan from 2011. That was before Cotton was even elected.

The ad says Cotton was “supporting a plan that the Wall Street Journal said essentially ends Medicare,” as the phrase “essentially end Medicare” and a citation for the Journal pops up on screen. But the April 4, 2011, article said that Ryan’s plan would “essentially end Medicare … as a program that directly pays those bills.”

Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2011: The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills.

That’s not the same as saying Ryan’s plan would put an end to a government plan for health insurance for seniors. His plan would have been a big change: He called for a “premium-support” system, where the government would send payments, like subsidies, to private insurance companies that would compete for seniors’ business on a Medicare exchange. He proposed implementing such a system for new beneficiaries beginning a decade in the future. The government would be paying insurance carriers, rather than directly paying health care bills.

While the Democratic claims haven’t changed in two years, Ryan’s plan has. His latest plans called for traditional Medicare to remain an option on his Medicare exchange.

As for the claim about some seniors paying thousands more under the Ryan plan, CBO did find, for the 2011 plan, that seniors with private plans would pay more than they would under the traditional Medicare system, and its analysis indicated that in 2022, a 65-year-old would pay about $6,000 more. The subsidies under that plan were set to increase with the rate of inflation.

But Ryan’s subsequent plans upped the rate of increase. CBO has only said of the latest plan that “beneficiaries might face higher costs,” but there was no more definitive estimate than that. Patriot Majority, however, hasn’t updated its attacks. It offers the same distortion it pushed a year ago.

The plan Ryan introduced in 2013, and the one Cotton voted in favor of, echoes his 2012 plan. The groups behind the ad point to a Dec. 15, 2011, tweet that Cotton sent from his personal account supporting Ryan’s Medicare plan: “Medicare needs reform, and @RepPaulRyan has a bipartisan plan to fix it: http://bit.ly/sBZnL4. #ar4 #argop #tcot.” But that’s a reference to the plan Ryan was about to introduce in 2012, as evidenced by the link to a National Review article on that topic.

Here’s hoping there’s no Groundhog Day in the summer of 2014.

— Lori Robertson