Who Knew Andy Griffith Was So Controversial?

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The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services certainly knows its audience. As Adam noted earlier, the agency signed up Andy Griffith to appear in television ads now airing and touting changes to Medicare brought about by the new health reform law.

This has caused a bit of a stir, with five Republican senators sending a letter yesterday to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – who oversees CMS – expressing their “profound concern” that tax dollars are being used “for campaign purposes.” (Griffith did the ads for free, but HHS spent a reported $700,000 on ad buys on the Weather Channel, Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, CNN and Headline News. Like I said, they know their audience.)

In their letter, the senators write:

We believe this ad is a clear violation of the spirit of federal laws that prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for campaign purposes. The justification for this ad, as expressed by Stephanie Cutter, an Assistant to the President, demonstrates the clear political motivation for the ad.

Ms. Cutter wrote on the White House blog: “As we worked to pass the Affordable Care Act, seniors were the target of a major misinformation campaign that was designed to scare and confuse older Americans about the real impact of reform….We are committed to correcting the record and ensuring seniors have the information they need and get the high-quality care they have earned and deserve.”

(snip)

The job of the Executive Branch, quite simply, is to execute and implement the law, not re-litigate a political debate. Using the power of the state and the Treasury to advance the agenda of one political party is an abuse that should not be tolerated, regardless of which party is in power.

That last bit was a nod to the fact that in 2004, the Bush Administration came under fire from Democrats for an ad campaign touting the benefits of the controversial Medicare Modernization Act of 2003. (The General Accounting Office eventually found that the MMA ad did not violate the law prohibiting taxpayer dollars from being used as “propaganda.”)

Over the years, in fact, CMS has funded lots of television ads promoting Medicare and they usually run them before the program’s fall open enrollment period, which is perhaps politically relevant, but just coincidentally the same time as election season. Here’s one from the fall of 2008, before Obama took office:

And here’s one that ran last fall:

What makes these ads different than the Andy Griffith one – but similar to the ad about the 2003 law – is that the current ad takes a stand, as opposed to just telling seniors to seek more information. Here’s the script for the current ad:

“1965. A lot of good things came out that year, like Medicare. This year, like always, we’ll have our guaranteed benefits and, with the new health care law, more good things are coming. Free checkups. Lower prescription costs and better ways to protect us and Medicare from fraud. See what else is new. I think you’re gonna like it.”

Let’s take the ad on the merits and what the White House has said about it.

Does anyone really doubt that seniors were subjected to “a major misinformation campaign” during the health reform debate? Death panels, anyone? To review, here are the basics on how Medicare will change because of the law.

Medicare Advantage, the program that allows private insurers to provide Medicare benefits, is losing loads of funding and seniors who have these plans will likely lose fringe benefits that are not required by law. But standard health insurance codified into Medicare will not change. This comrehensive, reliable, wildly popular coverage is the heart of the Medicare program and it’s staying intact. Many seniors do not realize this. According to the July tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation 50% believe the new law will “cut benefits that were previously provided to all people on Medicare.” (emphasis mine) Another 16% said they didn’t know. Thirty-six percent believe the law will “allow a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.” Another 17% said they didn’t know. The poll also reported 50% of seniors believe “the average person on Medicare will have to spend more out of their own pocket.”

This bring us to the merits of the claims in the ad. Andy Griffith touts “free checkups” and “lower prescription costs.” This is true. The law requires Medicare to pay 100% of preventive care, which includes checkups. The law will also gradually close the Medicare prescription drug gap known as the doughnut hole.

Now whether “you’re gonna like” the new health reform law is certainly up for debate. It’s not factual information and may not belong in a government-funded PSA. But is the ad, as John Hart, communications director for Sen. Tom Coburn, a signer of the letter to Sebelius, says, “A Soviet style tactic where the ruling regime uses the power of the state to disrupt the opposition.”?

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