Political ads stir health care horrors
Washington • They're throwing granny off a cliff!
That's the not-so-subtle message Republicans and Democrats seem to be converging on for political ads on health care this year, featuring heavy doses of what each side alleges the other will do to wreck Medicare.
From President Barack Obama's overhaul law to GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's privatization plan for future Medicare recipients, there's something about health care legislation that makes it a breeding ground for wild allegations.
Families feel vulnerable to the catastrophic costs of serious illness, and few understand the labyrinth of private and government insurance, allowing partisans to fan their worst fears. Political pros play on health care worries to sway older voters.
"It is easy to deceive on the issue because the knowledge base of the electorate when it comes to the complexities of health care is relatively low," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center.
It would be hard to top Sarah Palin's now-debunked assertion that "death panels" lurked in the recesses of Obama's law, but don't be surprised if that happens.
"Many people believe crazy things about health care because they want to believe them," said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Today's outlandish claims remind him of fears about fluoridated drinking water in the 1950s.
Sound far-fetched? It's already started.
Earlier this year, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lent credence to an unfounded rumor that the Obama administration would deny advanced treatment to stroke patients over the age of 70, allowing only comfort care. It didn't seem to matter that two doctors' groups and the Health and Human Services Department refuted the rumor.
And as for throwing granny off a cliff, two political ads are already depicting that one from the left and one from the right. Both dramatizations are getting attention on the Internet.
The ad from the left, by The Agenda Project, features an actress playing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Pushing her is a younger man acting the part of Ryan, R-Wis. "America the Beautiful" plays in the background.
But the outing to a scenic overlook turns scary when he steers for the edge. She tries to fight, but he dumps her over the cliff. The caption urges viewers to let Ryan know America wouldn't be beautiful without Medicare.
The ad from the right, by AmericanDoctors4Truth, shows an actor representing Obama pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff, after she demands a pacemaker recommended by her doctor.
The ad takes things to another level by using a snippet of Obama's voice. It comes from a rambling response the president gave in 2009 to a woman who wanted to know how his health plan might affect patients like her mother, who got a pacemaker at the age of 100 and enjoyed a good life.
A transcript of the town hall-style meeting shows that Obama didn't directly answer the question. At one point he suggests if there's waste involved it would be better to tell patients "you know what, maybe this isn't going to help, maybe you're better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller."
That snippet gets used in the ad. Later in his answer, Obama said maybe some patients should get a pacemaker faster, if that keeps them healthy. "I mean, this can cut both ways," he said. Those words aren't in the ad.
Jamieson, who directs a fact-checking project, says both ads are examples of "deceptive dramatization." Ryan's plan would not affect current Medicare beneficiaries. And the doctors' ad makes it sound as if Obama is gutting Medicare, when his law slows the program's future growth. Moreover, it's unrealistic to suggest that either party believes it can jettison older voters.
Erica Payne, a former Democratic Party fundraiser who founded the New York-based Agenda Project, said she stands by the Ryan ad. "It's dramatic, but it's accurate," said Payne, head of the public policy and advocacy group.
Ophthalmologist Jane Lindell Hughes, a founder of Texas-based AmericanDoctors4Truth, defended the Obama ad as a parody that responds to Payne's commercial. "It was absolutely a valid use of the president's voice," she said.
People targeted by health scare campaigns say the attacks can accomplish two things: turning an individual into a pariah and shutting down legitimate consideration of new ideas.
Pediatrician and health care expert Don Berwick, Obama's first Medicare chief, said he was never able to overcome the label of "rationer in chief" pinned on him by GOP critics, no matter how often he said he opposed rationing.
"When a myth gains traction ... it creates a terrain of silence," said Berwick. "A new kind of calculus is needed here, in which people believe engagement about the truth is wise."
Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin was GOP presidential candidate John McCain's policy chief in 2008 when the campaign unveiled a plan for a health insurance tax credit financed by limits on the tax-free status of employer coverage. Although the idea had support from some prominent Democrats, and analysis showed it could work, it got pounded.
That "reflects a deeper truth," Holtz-Eakin said. "Health care is a big issue to the American people. If it's not ... you can't make hay of it in a political sense."
The woman who asked Obama about a pacemaker for her centenarian mother said she was dissatisfied both with the president's response and how his opponents are using it in their ad.
"It was just tit for tat," said Jane Sturm of Long Island, N.Y. "It's not using intelligent reasoning."