“Tom Cotton, just elected and already seeking the national limelight. Behind the glitz, Tom Cotton forgot about us. Supporting a plan that the Wall Street Journal said essentially ends Medicare, costing some seniors 6,000 [dollars] more a year, while voting Congress taxpayer-funded health care for life. Congressman Cotton: out for himself, not us.”

— voiceover of a new ad, “Glitz,” by Patriot Majority USA and Senate Majority PAC

It’s been a while since we delved into the Medicare wars. But when we saw this new attack ad against Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), from Patriot Majority USA and Senate Majority PAC, it brought back lots of bad memories. 

Seriously, The Fact Checker, PolitiFact and FactCheck.Org have all called these claims into question when they were used by the Obama campaign and other Democrats in 2012.

As our colleague Rachel Weiner noted, the ad appeared to be a “preemptive strike” against a rising star who might challenge vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D). But can’t get these guys come up with some new talking points?

Time for a refresher course!


The Facts

The ad, like similar attacks last year, tries to give itself credibility by citing The Wall Street Journal, which has a conservative-leaning editorial page. But it is quoting from a 2011 news article about a House Republican plan for Medicare — and badly truncates the quote. This is the complete sentence: 

“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.”


Note that the full sentence is referring to Medicare “directly” paying the bills, not to the end of the entire program. Under the plan advanced in 2011 by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, the bills would have been paid indirectly, as Medicare beneficiaries would instead receive help in buying private insurance, known as “premium support.”  (For a neutral description of the concept, read this Health Affairs article.)

But there’s an important reason why the Democrats have to reach back to a 2011 news article to trash a Republican who was not even in Congress at the time: Ryan’s plan was substantially changed in 2012. For instance, he decided to allow an option for seniors to keep the traditional fee-for-service Medicare plan if they preferred, though critics have suggested that over time only the least healthy individuals would remain in it.

 The same “since-expired” problem holds true for the claim that seniors would have pay $6,000 for their health insurance. That claim is based on a 2011 analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using data from the Congressional Budget Office, regarding Ryan’s original plan. The report said that in 2022, when the premium support system then was expected to go into effect, a beneficiary’s out-of-pocket expenses would double, from $6,000 to $12,000.

But when Ryan’s plan changed, so did the numbers, in part because Ryan allowed Medicare spending to grow slightly faster than the nation’s economy (+0.5 percent), the same growth rate as President Obama’s budget. (The first version had capped growth at the rate of inflation.)

The premium support payment would be based on the cost of the second least-expensive private plan or traditional Medicare, whichever is lower. Any difference in costs would need to be made up by the beneficiary. But Medicare benefits of at least one plan supposedly would be covered by the premium-support payment.

The CBO did not do the same sort of extensive analysis of the revised Ryan plan, and CBPP in its most recent look at the Ryan plan reiterates that over time “the vouchers would purchase less coverage with each passing year, pushing more costs on to beneficiaries.” But there are no numbers as definitive as the original estimate of a $6,000 gap.

Indeed, the Journal of the American Medical Association last year calculated that the gap would be much less than $6,000. It suggested that if the revised Ryan plan had been in effect in 2009, the additional payment would have added up to less than $800 a year.

In any case, all of these estimates are highly speculative, especially because the current version of the Ryan plan would not even go in effect until 2024. But it is telling the Democrats are citing an estimate that is no longer even relevant.

Finally, the ad claims that Cotton “voted” to give Congress “taxpayer-funded health care for life.” This only means that he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which will force lawmakers and congressional aides out of the health-care program for federal employees and into the exchanges created by the law. But this is only a small part of the health-care law — and repeal efforts have repeatedly failed. (Update: Our friends at PolitiFact gave this element of the ad a “Pants on Fire” rating.)

In response to our analysis, Ty Matsdorf of Senate Majority PAC  said: “Here are the facts: Tom Cotton supported the Ryan Plan. Fact. The Ryan Plan would essentially end Medicare and raise prescription drug costs. Fact. Tom Cotton also voted to give Congress health care for life. Fact. These are important issues and the people of Arkansas deserve to know where he stands.”


The Pinocchio Test

It’s pretty shameful that Democrats are still attacking Republicans for a Medicare proposal that has been substantially revised, especially in an ad that concerns a lawmaker who was not even in Congress when the initial version was unveiled.

Certainly questions could be raised about the Republican Medicare plan. But that’s no excuse for flogging such an old horse, especially when these errors of fact have been repeatedly called out by fact checkers.

Such recidivism adds to the Pinocchio count. Our advice from 2011 remains: If you ever see a political ad that mentions Medicare, from either party, just mute the sound. It’s not worth paying attention.

Four Pinocchios


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