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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More Senior Scare in Montana

Turning the tables on a traditionally Democratic attack line, a new ad from Republican Montana Senate candidate Steve Daines falsely accuses his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Walsh, of wanting to privatize Social Security.

And both candidates trade jabs in competing TV ads on Medicare — a political hot-button issue that our regular readers know is rife with distortions from both sides.

The Daines ad features a 67-year-old woman claiming that “Walsh also believes that privatizing Social Security should be on the table,” a proposal she considers “just too risky.” On screen, we see the quote, “Privatize Social Security, Walsh Says.”

Except, Walsh did not say that. The small print attributes that quote to a Dirk Adams letter to the editor of the Missoulian on May 26. Adams was Walsh’s opponent in the Democratic primary, which Walsh won the following week on June 3.

In that letter, Adams claimed Walsh is “open to privatizing Social Security for young workers” based on an answer Walsh provided to a reporter’s question at a roundtable meeting with seniors about Medicare and Social Security in Great Falls, Montana, on April 17. Here’s the entirety of the question and Walsh’s response (which you can listen to by clicking here):

Reporter: Congressman Ryan is still sort of pushing for the privatization of Social Security. Do you think there would ever be a circumstance where the privatization of Social Security would make sense?

Walsh: You know, I’d have to take a look at all the options — but not for those that are currently in Social Security right now. I can see, you know, maybe if there may be an option where they look at it for new employees coming into the workforce — that they may look at that — but it’s not something that I’m going to support with those that are currently on the program or currently working in the program.

The reporter was referencing Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. And it’s true that, back in 2005, Ryan co-authored a plan to partially privatize Social Security. Ryan’s bill would have given workers under the age of 55 the option to allocate about half of their payroll tax contributions to a private account invested in bonds and stock funds. The plan enjoyed widespread support among Republicans, at the time, but ultimately fizzled due to near unanimous opposition from Democrats (which makes the claim of Walsh’s support so unorthodox).

Ryan, who has chaired the House Budget Committee since 2011, persisted with his partial privatization plan, including a version in his “Roadmap for America’s Future” plan in 2010. But his more recent budget plans have been silent on personal accounts. In fact, Ryan’s most recent 2015 budget plan calls on Congress to offer legislation “to ensure the sustainable solvency” of Social Security, but specifically states, “[t]o be clear, nothing in this budget calls for the privatization of Social Security.”

More germane to the ad’s claims, however, is that Walsh’s answer never endorsed privatization. Rather, when asked about Republican efforts to partially privatize Social Security, Walsh responded that he would oppose any such plans for current workers. To be sure, Walsh could have been more unequivocal that he opposed any kind of privatization for everyone, including new employees coming into the workforce. But the Daines camp makes the leap that Walsh saying he would oppose privatization for current employees was the same as saying it “should be on the table”  for new employees. His comments could be interpreted to mean that it “could” be on the table, but not that it “should” be.

In an attempt to clear up any confusion on the point, Walsh’s campaign told us that Walsh opposes privatization of Social Security, period, even for new employees.

The campaign emailed us this statement from Walsh: “We need to reduce the national debt and cut our spending, but it absolutely cannot come at the expense of Medicare and Social Security and I will not support efforts to privatize these programs.”

The campaign further notes that Walsh was endorsed by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a group that adamantly opposes privatization of Social Security.

We would also note that the woman featured in the ad, Pat Lawrence of Billings, Montana, is 67 years old, and even the partial privatization plans offered by Republicans in the past would not have affected current seniors.

A Dollop of Mediscare from Both Camps

In addition to Social Security, the Daines ad, and a competing ad from the Walsh campaign, exchange accusations about Medicare — with each claiming the other would weaken it.

We’ll start with the Daines ad. Lawrence, a 67-year-old breast cancer survivor, warns that Walsh would put her Medicare benefits at risk.

Lawrence in Daines ad: I’m a breast cancer survivor. That’s why I dyed my hair pink. I really depend on Medicare. When I heard that John Walsh said Obamacare wouldn’t hurt seniors, I couldn’t believe it. Obamacare cuts billions of dollars from Medicare, putting my care at risk.

Walsh, who was not in the Senate when the Affordable Care Act was passed, has been cagey about his thoughts on the controversial law. He has said that he does not support repeal, but adds that he thinks it ought to be fixed.

The Daines campaign bases its claim that “Walsh said Obamacare wouldn’t hurt seniors” on an April 17 interview in which — in response to a question about the most important thing seniors should know about the Affordable Care Act — Walsh said, “Well most of the seniors would be involved with Medicare so really there should not be that much impact to our seniors with regards to the Affordable Care Act.” But that wasn’t his full response. He went on to say in the next sentence, “But we want to make sure it stays that way. We don’t want our seniors to have to pay higher premiums or higher medical costs out of their pocket. That’s one of the concerns I have with the Affordable Care Act. I want to make sure it’s not going to have a negative impact on Montana seniors.”

The Daines campaign claim about the Affordable Care Act hurting seniors is chiefly based on the tired attack that Democrats cut more than $700 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. It’s a line that we deemed a whopper in 2012, and before. As we repeated when a similar claim was made recently in the Kentucky Senate race, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t slash $700 billion from the current Medicare budget; instead, this is a cut in the future growth of spending over a decade.

Furthermore, the reductions apply to payments made to hospitals and other non-physician providers, and it remains to be seen whether those would translate into reduced services.

The reductions would, however, extend the solvency of the program. Indeed, Daines has voted twice in favor of Republican budget proposals from Ryan, in 2013 and 2104, both of which included the same $700 billion in “cuts.”

In terms of breast cancer, the ACA expanded benefits for breast cancer screenings. Before the ACA, mammograms were also covered by Medicare, but with 20 percent cost-sharing. Now, they’re free. Traditional Medicare began fully paying for mammogram screenings (one every 12 months) in 2011, and all Medicare Advantage plans were required to do so as of 2012.

The ACA also stipulated (see section 3601) that guaranteed Medicare benefits can’t be reduced by the law. That would exclude extras offered by private Medicare Advantage plans.

The Walsh ad, meanwhile, features three senior women also worried about Medicare.

One claims: “We were so disappointed when Congressman Daines voted to cut Medicare benefits.” That’s a reference to Daines’ vote in April for this year’s Ryan plan. The plan would nix the ACA’s free preventive care — including mammograms and other screenings — and the law’s closing of the prescription drug doughnut hole.

But, as we explained recently, relatively few seniors have drug costs high enough to place them in the Part D doughnut hole coverage gap.

Under the doughnut hole this year, Medicare Part D covers prescription costs, minus a deductible and copays, up to $2,850 in total costs for a beneficiary. Coverage doesn’t pick back up again until a beneficiary reaches $4,550 in total out-of-pocket expenses, or $6,691 in total drug costs. The ACA began offering discounts on drugs purchased in the gap in 2011 and slowly closes the gap by 2020.

So far, this increase in drug coverage has affected roughly 16 percent of Medicare beneficiaries. Of the more than 49.4 million covered by Medicare, about 7.9 million saved money on prescriptions because of the ACA, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In Montana, in 2013, the ACA discounts saved 10,952 beneficiaries an average of $785, HHS said.

— Robert Farley and Lori Robertson

Correction, Aug. 28: We originally wrote that the no-cost preventive care for Medicare beneficiaries under the Affordable Care Act included flu shots. The ACA requires private plans on the individual and small-group markets to cover flu shots without cost-sharing, but Medicare already had done so since 1993. More information on the changes in Medicare preventive services can be found here.