From Ryan Grim at THE HUFFINGTON POST:
Republicans took to the floor of Congress, the Internet and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page Tuesday in a rush to defend a health insurance company that used taxpayer-subsidized communication to terrify seniors with the prospect that health care reform will cut their Medicare benefits.
Republican leaders in both houses of Congress ripped Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for urging the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to put a stop to the insurer’s efforts, decrying what they called a “gag order” and reading the First Amendment on the floor of the Senate.
And I always thought the Second Amendment was their favorite!
“It is outrageous that the Obama Administration is trying to keep seniors in the dark about the consequences of congressional Democrats’ costly government-run health care bills. Would the Administration impose this sort of gag order if seniors were being given information promoting the Obama health care plan? I don’t think so,” said Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“It looks likes CMS is engaged in government intimidation, pure and simple,” said Ways and Means Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who sent off a letter to CMS demanding an explanation.
Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said it shouldn’t be seen as coming to the defense of insurance companies. “I don’t know that I’m coming to the defense of anything, except the First Amendment. I don’t care who they write to,” he told HuffPost. “You don’t lose your rights because you happen to sell insurance for heaven’s sake.”
The free-speech argument, however, is complicated by the government-subsidy. Medicare Advantage is a GOP-created program that gives private plans an average of 14 percent more tax dollars than the government pays for coverage of patients under traditional Medicare.
Democratic health-care proposals would cut payments to those plans by about $123 billion over 10 years.
That would cut deeply into Humana’s profits.
So, as Huffington Post citizen journalist Dawn Teo reported on Monday, Humana sent mailers to their list of Medicare beneficiaries warning that the Democratic health care reform bill will cut “important benefits and services” and urging them to call Congress to register their concern.
Baucus complained and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) cried foul, protesting that the mailings were misleading and instructing them to stop.
Communication between the private Medicare Advantage providers and beneficiaries is strictly regulated because the private companies are using public dollars.
CMS focused on a mass mailer sent by Humana claiming that the leading health care proposals in Washington would cut billions from Medicare Advantage programs, “as well as spending reductions to original Medicare and Medicaid. While these programs need to be made more efficient, if the proposed funding cut levels become law, millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable.”
“I rise to call my colleagues’ attention to a truly disturbing development in the health care debate,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Humana’s home state of Kentucky. “A colleague of ours has called for an investigation into a major health care company because this company informed its customers of its concerns about health care legislation that this colleague of ours introduced. Let me say that again,” said McConnell, before saying it all again.
In 2004, Humana’s chairman and former CEO David Jones donated a million dollars to the McConnell Center for Political Leadership, a University of Louisville academic center.
He was followed by third-ranking Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who read the First Amendment on the Senate Floor.
Humana was recently featured in a HuffPost story for denying health care due to lack of an enema. In 2005, it settled a racketeering suit for $40 million. It settled a fraud lawsuit in 2000 for $14.5 million. Since 2000, its profits have soared from $90 million to $834 million.
White House Office of Management and Budget chief Peter Orszag explained earlier this year that Medicare Advantage profits would be a prime target of health reform. “Evidence suggests that each dollar provided under Medicare Advantage costs the government a dollar thirty in costs,” he said. “I believe in competition. I don’t believe in paying a dollar thirty to get a dollar.”
While Democratic leaders were ignoring the charges from Republicans, Democratic aides were having a field day, Googling up one sordid Humana clip after another.
Kyl didn’t back down, saying that the CMS regulations about communicating with Medicare beneficiaries apply to information about particular health care plans, not health care legislation.
The GOP arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. Jonathan Blum, director of the Center for Medicare Management said in a statement that CMS is investigating whether Humana inappropriately used the lists of Medicare enrollees for unauthorized purposes.
Blum is a former adviser to Baucus where he worked on Medicare Advantage issues.
“We are concerned that, among other things, the information in the letter is misleading and confusing to beneficiaries, who may believe that it represents official communication about the Medicare Advantage program,” said Blum.
Oh, little Gooper Scouts, you’ve earned your merit badge!