(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

“To grow old in America is to be one illness away from bankruptcy, and Jerry Costello is making it worse. Costello backs a Democrat plan that the media says would ‘decimate Medicare.’ The Costello-backed plan would lead to ‘political rationing’ of health care, taking choices from seniors; ‘shred the social safety net’; and leave seniors at risk. Call Jerry Costello. Tell him to stop bankrupting Medicare.”

— from a new TV advertisement by the National Republican Campaign Committee aimed at Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)

Do two wrongs make a right?

Newly elected Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) unexpectedly won a special election last month in a conservative Upstate New York congressional district, in part because of an effective attack on the House Republican Medicare plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.)

Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to fact-check the ads in that race, but our friends at Factcheck.org did, calling that campaign a “test market for spin.” Many of the ads would have merited three or four Pinocchios under our scale.

We have, however, assigned many Pinocchios to Democrats such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) for comments that mischaracterized GOP plans for Medicare.

Republicans now apparently have decided to turn the tables, accusing Democrats of seeking to destroy Medicare. In fact, a new National Republican Campaign Committee ad says that Democrats would “decimate” Medicare — the same word that was often used in news releases sent out by the Hochul campaign.

This ad is being accompanied by targeted NRCC calls along the same theme aimed at nine Democrats (one of whom, Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma, has announced he’s leaving Congress).

“Washington Democrats already cut $500 billion from Medicare with their government takeover of health care, and [insert name of Democrat X] is making it worse,” the call script says.  “[Democrat X] backs a partisan plan that the media says would quote ‘decimate Medicare.’ The [Democrat X]-backed plan will cut Medicare benefits by 17 percent and lead to ‘political rationing’ of health care . . . taking personal health care choices away from seniors.”

Interestingly, Republicans appear to have dropped the idea of saying that the Democrats have “no plan” for Medicare. Instead, they have begun arguing that even the status quo amounts to “a plan” that would lead to massive cuts in benefits.

It’s enough to make a voter’s head spin. Is there truth in either side’s claims?

The Facts

 First of all, the new NRCC campaign is one of those misleading ads that cites biased editorials and pretends that the quotes are from objective news sources, i.e., “the media.” We would think viewers should be wise to these kinds of games, but perhaps not.

The money quote of “decimate Medicare” comes from an editorial in the conservative Investor’s Business Daily, which was playing off Hochul’s use of the term. The newspaper actually said the Democrats “would decimate Medicare by default” because, it argued, the Democrats had no plan.

The “political rationing” phrase comes from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, which was giving advice to Republicans: “They need a better explanation for the Ryan plan, but more than that they need a strategy to go on offense. One place to start is by attacking the Democratic plan to cut Medicare via political rationing.” It’s almost funny that the NRCC decided to take this advice so literally.

Finally, the “shred the social safety net” line — which almost sounds like it should be from a Democratic attack ad — comes from a USA Today editorial which actually attacked both parties for shameless posturing on Medicare.

“Republicans killed them [Democrats] in the debate over health care reform, deploying every half-truth and fear-mongering trick in the book to score political points,” the editorial stated. “This even included a campaign to scare seniors over some rather modest cuts to Medicare. But sooner or later the destructive, self-serving tit-for-tat has to stop. Washington's rising tab for health care is its single biggest fiscal problem. . . . Democrats know that the simple math of health care will eventually shred the social safety net they seek to protect.”

In sum, the quotes that form the core of the ad are taken out of context or come from partisan editorials. It does not seem like fair play to suggest this material came from objective sources, but of course both parties use this tactic.

The claim in the phone calls that the “Democrat plan” would “bankrupt” Medicare or cut benefits by “17 percent” is drawn from the latest Medicare trustees report. The trustees concluded that one part of Medicare — the trust fund for inpatient hospital, home health, skilled nursing facility, psychiatric hospital, and hospice care services — will be exhausted in 2024, five years earlier than estimated the year before. Other aspects of Medicare, such as the part that covers physician and outpatient hospital services, are in much better shape.

The use of the phrase “bankrupt” is misleading. The trustees report does not say that, nor does a summary written by the Academy of Actuaries provided by the NRCC as back-up for its ad. (We do not take responsibility for misleading or poorly reported newspaper articles and headlines on this subject.)

Yes, there is a funding gap for the hospital portion of Medicare, which means that when the trust fund is depleted in 2024, payroll tax revenues would cover only 90 percent of program costs. Taxes would need to be increased or benefits cut to make up the difference, but Medicare would not go out of business. (The trustees estimate a 17 percent benefit cut would be needed over a 75-year period — that’s where that figure comes from.)

Both the trustees report and the Academy of Actuaries praise the Obama health care law, passed last year, for improving the financial stability of Medicare.

“The financial outlook for the Medicare program is substantially improved as a result of the changes in the Affordable Care Act,” the trustees said. “In the long range, however, much of this improvement depends on the feasibility of the ACA’s downward adjustments to future increases in Medicare prices for most categories of health care providers.”

The Academy of Actuaries said: “The Affordable Care Act (ACA), enacted in 2010, contains numerous provisions designed to reduce Medicare costs, increase Medicare revenues, and develop new health care delivery systems and payment models that improve health care quality and cost efficiency.”

(Of course, the trustees include Obama administration officials, so take these words with a caveat. The point is that the picture is not so black and white.)

This brings us to the question about whether Democrats have a plan. It’s incorrect to say they have no plan, because, as demonstrated by the quotes above, there are proposals and plans within the new health-care law that seek to reduce Medicare costs. To some extent, the Democrats already passed their Medicare plan last year.

One certainly can argue whether the ideas are good or bad — or go far enough — but it is disingenuous for Republicans to claim that either a) there is no Democratic plan or b) the Democrats want to steer Medicare on a course toward bankruptcy.

Paul Lindsay, the NRCC communications director, says it is correct to list newspapers as “the media.” He also notes that the trustees say the hospital trust fund will be “depleted” — and “bankrupt” is one of many synonyms for that word. As Lindsay put it: “When it [the trust fund] runs out of money, it is bankrupt.”

The Pinocchio Test

The best advice to voters might be to mute the sound whenever a Medicare ad by either party comes on television. If the Hochul campaign or this NRCC ad are any indication, the battle will be waged with half-truths, misleading claims and outright lies. Four Pinocchios to the NRCC and to (belatedly) Hochul.

Four Pinocchios

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Watch the NRCC ad
Watch one of Hochul’s ads