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Political Ads Stir Healthcare "Horror Stories"

Tue, 05/29/2012 - 6:35am
Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP

They're throwing granny off a cliff! That's the not-so-subtle message Republicans and Democrats appear to be converging on for political ads on healthcare this year, featuring heavy doses of what each party alleges the other one plans to do to wreck Medicare. From cost controls in President Barack Obama's healthcare law to Representative Paul Ryan's privatization plan for future Medicare recipients, there's something about healthcare that makes it a breeding ground for the wildest allegations.

Families feel vulnerable to the catastrophic costs of serious illness, and few understand the labyrinth of private and government insurance, allowing partisans to play to their worst fears. Add to that the belief among political pros that healthcare worries can drive the votes of seniors. "It is easy to deceive on the issue because the knowledge of the electorate, when it comes to the complexities of healthcare, 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 this year. "Many people believe crazy things about healthcare because they want to believe them," said Drew Altman, president of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Some of today's outlandish claims remind him of fears about fluoridated drinking water in the 1950s.

A few months ago, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lent credence to an unfounded rumor that the Obama administration would deny advanced medical 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 were shooting down the rumor. And as for throwing granny off a cliff, two political ads are already depicting just that — one from the left and one from the right. Both dramatizations are getting steady 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-WI) It looks like an outing to a scenic overlook, but then he steers for the edge of the cliff as she tries to fight him off. He thrusts her over the side with America The Beautiful playing in the background. The caption urges viewers to let Ryan know America wouldn't be beautiful without Medicare.

The ad from the right, by AmericanDoctors4Truth, shows an elderly woman in a wheelchair being pushed off a cliff, this time by an actor representing Obama, 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 doctors and 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 the 2009 appearance, Obama said that maybe patients like the questioner's mother should get a pacemaker faster, if that helps keep them healthy. "I mean, this can cut both ways," he said. But 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 people currently on Medicare, she said. And the doctors' ad makes it sound as if Obama is cutting current Medicare spending, when his law merely slows the program's future growth. It's unrealistic to suggest that either party believes it can afford to antagonize 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," she said. Her organization is a 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 healthcare distortions 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 of the health law, no matter how often he said he was against 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 a limit on the tax-free status of employer health insurance. It got pounded even though the idea had support from some prominent Democrats, and analysis showed it could work. That experience "reflects a deeper truth," Holtz-Eakin said. "Healthcare is a big issue to the American people. If it's not a big issue, you can't make hay of it in a political sense."

The woman who asked Obama the question 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, NY. "It's not using intelligent reasoning."

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