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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More Senior Scare in Arkansas

A conservative group’s ad attacking Sen. Mark Pryor shows an image of a senior man while saying Pryor “suggested raising the retirement age” for Social Security. He did — but not for the gentleman pictured. Pryor’s suggestion pertained to those who are now teenagers.

The Arkansas Senate race has featured plenty of political messages aimed at scaring seniors. Back in February, Pryor ads made misleading claims about Medicare costs and benefits under a plan that his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, had supported. A few months later, the liberal Senate Majority PAC also ran ads attacking Cotton on Medicare. And now, the conservative Crossroads GPS is criticizing the Democratic senator with an ad that falsely implies he wanted to raise the Social Security retirement age for those who are already retired or close to it.

The ad begins with the image of an elderly woman, while the narrator says, “Arkansas seniors depend on Social Security and Medicare. It’s troubling that Senator Mark Pryor said we should overhaul Social Security and Medicare.”

The reference is to a Jan. 5, 2011, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story that said Pryor was vague on what exactly he supported doing to control spending on these programs. The “overhaul” word was used by the reporter, in the lead of the article: “Despite calling it ‘political dynamite,’ Arkansas’ senior senator Mark Pryor said Tuesday that the country’s deep deficits and sputtering economy require overhauling Social Security and Medicare.”

The newspaper reported that Pryor “avoided saying what concrete steps he favored to rein in entitlement spending. He repeatedly said he liked many of the recommendations released by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That presidentially appointed panel has urged raising the retirement age and lowering cost-of-living increases for retirees.” The commission, which released its report in December 2010, also recommended gradually increasing the maximum amount of wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes, and gradually changing the benefit formula to be more progressive.

So, we have no specifics on what Pryor wanted to do to “overhaul” Social Security and Medicare. We’d note that many politicians from both parties have proposed ways to control the growth of spending on these programs, particularly Medicare, which has major financial challenges. Whether it’s “troubling” that Pryor wanted to do something about the spending growth is a matter of opinion.

The ad continues: “On Social Security, Pryor suggested raising the retirement age,” while an image of an older man is shown on screen. A video is then shown of Pryor saying, “say that they couldn’t get social security until they turn 68 or 69.”

Who are they? The ad doesn’t say, but the images leave the impression that Pryor proposed upping the retirement age now, affecting those who are very close to, or already in, retirement. It’s a technique we’ve seen in political ads many times, when the images on screen leave the false impression that a politician had made proposals that would impact those who are seniors today.

But Pryor was talking about raising the retirement age for people who are teenagers. Here’s the fuller quote from a June 6, 2011, interview with Hope, Arkansas’ KTSS-TV, with the relevant passage in bold.

Pryor, June 6, 2011: Yeah, Social Security is another thing that’s not in any of the budgets right now, but it is very, very fixable. And again if people get serious about this in Washington, we could fix Social Security next week, if we wanted to. It’s not that hard to do. Especially if we start right now, because Social Security is solvent until, you know, for about 25 years, so if you make small changes now you have 25 years those little changes to accumulate over time and really help. But you could pretty easily make Social Security solvent in perpetuity. Probably the biggest change would be is that you would take my kids’ generation, teenagers today, and life expectancy is longer et cetera, and probably say that they couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69. If you just did that one change you would fix about 80% of it right there.

Seniors in high school may be affected by such a proposal, but the senior pictured in the ad clearly would not.

Finally, the ad says that the Affordable Care Act, which Pryor supported, will “cut Medicare Advantage benefits for our seniors.” Fair enough. While the ACA specifically says no guaranteed benefits under Medicare would be cut, the law does gradually reduce extra payments to Medicare Advantage plans to bring them in line with payments for traditional Medicare. MA plans, which receive higher payments on average than traditional Medicare, often offer extra benefits as a result, such as eyeglasses or gym memberships. We’ve long said those extras will likely go away as the extra payments do as well. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have MA plans, a share that has increased since the ACA was enacted.

It’s worth noting, however, that the ACA also added new benefits for seniors, such as free preventive care, including cancer screenings, and increased prescription drug coverage for those who are in the “doughnut hole” gap in Part D coverage.

— 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.