PolitiFact’s Semantic Distinction of the Year: Ending Medicare

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, August 1, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The ubiquitous fact-checking outfit PolitiFact has chosen Democrats’ charge that Paul Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare” as its Lie of the Year. This dubious honor, which follows 2009 and 2010 rulings that both went against the GOP for its health care claims, is a coup for House Republicans, who will no doubt face an onslaught of Mediscare TV ads next year; the verdict will surely appear in countless defensive spots declaring that their opponent personally perpetrated “the lie of year according to PolitiFact.” Of course, that statement itself relies on the same tenuous semantics that made “Republicans voted to end Medicare” 2011’s top prevarication in the first place.

First, from Kate Pickert’s analysis of the plan, what Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal would actually do:

His plan for Medicare, the insurance program for seniors that’s on an unsustainable path and accounts for about 13% of the federal budget, is extreme by any measure. His proposal would turn the program from a guaranteed benefit into a system in which private insurers would cover elderly Americans, whose premiums would be subsidized by the federal government.

Seniors would shop in a highly regulated exchange, or marketplace, and select among plans already vetted by the federal government. Each plan sold in the exchange would be required to cover a set of standardized benefits.

The subsidies seniors receive would be based on the value of Medicare at the start of the plan. The subsidies would increase at a rate indexed to inflation, which is growing much more slowly than health care costs. The upshot? Medicare beneficiaries would spend far more out of pocket under this system than in the current one.

Does all that constitute an “end” to Medicare? It depends. It doesn’t excise the name Medicare from the federal government, but it fundamentally changes the nature of that program from a public, guaranteed benefit to a private, subsidized one that would require seniors to cover more of their own health care costs over time.

Ultimately, in other words, this is a semantic distinction. “With a few small tweaks to their attack lines, Democrats could have been factually correct,” begins one paragraph in the analysis. It goes on to point out that Ryan’s plan wouldn’t affect those currently enrolled in Medicare, that Democrats used images of people too old to be impacted by Ryan’s plan in advertising, and that the program would still be called Medicare. By this literalist interpretation, if someone voted to keep Medicare exactly the same, but changed its name to HealthiCare, you could call that an end to Medicare. You could also nitpick whether the people used in political ads were real testimonials or paid actors. It’s a slippery slope.

Unspecific hyperbole is commonplace in politics. In selecting ending Medicare as the lie of the year, it seems PolitiFact chose it for its political potency rather than for the depth or deviousness of its deception. This is a claim that will appear in countless TV ads next year and has arguably already helped swing a special congressional election in New York. It’s a big deal to be sure, and its nuances are worth exploring. But lie of the year? Maybe that will require a debate over the word “lie.”