Thursday, September 24, 2009

Medicare and Gag Orders
Maybe Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus should put a gag order on Douglas Elmendorf too. On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office director told Mr. Baucus's committee that its plan to cut $123 billion from Medicare Advantage—the program that gives almost one-fourth of seniors private health-insurance options—will result in lower benefits and some 2.7 million people losing this coverage.

Imagine that. Last week Mr. Baucus ordered Medicare regulators to investigate and likely punish Humana Inc. for trying to educate enrollees in its Advantage plans about precisely this fact. Jonathan Blum, acting director of a regulatory office in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said that a mailer Humana sent its customers was "misleading and confusing to beneficiaries, who may believe that it represents official communication about the Medicare Advantage program."

Mr. Blum has also banned all Advantage contractors from telling their customers what Mr. Elmendorf has just told Congress. Mr. Blum happens to be a former senior aide to Mr. Baucus and a health adviser on the Obama transition team.

Meanwhile, we have the case of the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons (AARP), and its fanciful Medicare claims. The self-styled seniors lobby is using all its money and influence to cheer on ObamaCare, even though polls show that most retired persons oppose it. AARP has spent millions of dollars on its TV ad campaign and bulletins and newsletters to its members, including eight million direct-mail letters over Labor Day. The AARP Web site claims that it is a "myth" that "health care reform will hurt Medicare," while it is a "fact" that "none of the health care reform proposals being considered by Congress will cut Medicare benefits or increase your out-of-pocket costs."

So why hasn't AARP also come under CMS scrutiny? Could that be because AARP, which markets its own branded Advantage plans with United HealthCare that have 1.7 million enrollees, is a reliable liberal ally? Certainly its claims are "misleading and confusing"—given that in this instance it is empirically untrue, unlike Humana's attempt at edification. Seniors might even think AARP's falsehoods represent official communication about the Medicare Advantage program. But don't expect Mr. Baucus or CMS to impose its gag rule on the AARP's pro-ObamaCare advocacy.

We don't think AARP should be muzzled in a political debate, but neither should the insurance industry—especially by an influential Senator getting favors from his crony in a supposedly impartial regulatory agency that has enormous power to harm or destroy private companies. Seniors have a right to know how they may be affected by Washington's health-care planning.

So, for the record, CBO's Mr. Elmendorf says that cuts to Medicare Advantage "could lead many plans to limit the benefits they offer, raise their premiums, or withdraw from the program."

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A20

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