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Commentary & Opinion

Misleading ads about "Build Back Better" need to be countered

So I was recently watching a baseball game when my mood was completely upended by a disgustingly dishonest ad. The organization 60 Plus, a Koch brothers funded so-called “Seniors Advocacy Group” which claims to support “free enterprise” dramatized a woman talking with her doctor. The woman notes that she has Medicare and the doctor warns her that they have to check with the government to see if Medicare would continue to pay for her prescription drugs because of new government rules. The actor playing the doctor then adds gratuitously, “First they defund the police, now they are defunding Medicare.”

The ad ends with the usual admonition to viewers – Tell President Biden, keep your hands off Medicare.

It almost ruined my baseball experience because I was so mad that these rich sons of ------s could lie so shamelessly and get away with it.

Let’s unpack this. Biden’s Build Back Better bill which started as a 6 trillion dollar wish list in Senator Bernie Sanders’ Budget Committee emerged as a Biden Administration proposal to spend $3.5 trillion over ten years on a variety of “human infrastructure” investments:

A CBS News summary posted on October 5, (and available here) identifies the following spending proposals in the bill. (That site says they will update the elements in the bill as negotiations among members of Congress and the White House continue. The hope on the part of the White House and Democratic leaders is that they will agree by the end of October.)

Two free years of community college

The legislation provides two years of free community college for all students, regardless of family income. It is anticipated to cost $108 billion.

The bill would also add $80 billion in funding for Pell Grants, which Democrats say hasn't kept pace with the increasing cost of college.

Child care and universal pre-K

Every family that applies shall be offered child care assistance for children ages 0 to 5. In all, the plan allocates roughly $450 billion to lower the cost of child care and provide two years of universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the House Education and Labor Committee.

The panel estimated that this proposal would keep the cost of child care at or below 7% of most families' income.

Medicare expansion

This heavily debated provision would expand Medicare to include coverage of dental, hearing and vision services.

Extended child tax credit

Democrats expanded the child tax credit for 2021 in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, and now want to extend it through 2025.

Under the enhancement, families receive $3,600 per child under age 6, and $3,000 per child age 6 to 18. Most families receive monthly payments of either $250 or $300 per child.

The full expanded child tax credit is available to individuals making up to $75,000 or married couples making up to $150,000.

Cut prescription drug prices

[THIS IS THE SECTION OF THE LAW THAT THE AD FROM 60 PLUS IS ATTACKING]

The legislation allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Medicare is currently prohibited by law from negotiating for the best deal.

Paid family and medical leave

For the first time in history, the U.S. would have comprehensive paid leave, covering 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The legislation would replace at least two-thirds of earnings, up to $4,000 per month, while the lowest-paid workers would receive 80% of their income.

Climate change

Combating climate change and slowing the rate at which Earth warms will mean transitioning away from fossil fuels, the major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

There are measures to incentivize the buying of electric vehicles and the construction of charging stations; consumer rebates to homeowners who weatherfit their houses; and financial penalties for oil and gas producers for methane leaks, among other things.

[End of quote from the CBS News website]

People who have listened to me for years may recall a commentary (now about 15 years old!) which I entitled “What’s Wrong with Medicare Part D?” The answer to the question was that the most serious short-coming of the law which established the prescription drug part of Medicare (Part D) was that explicit prohibition against Medicare bargaining with Big Pharma over the prices that they pay to supply seniors with pharmaceuticals. (Those who are not yet on Medicare may not be aware that seniors only have to pay a co-pay for prescription drugs – and sometimes that co-pay is zero. Medicare Part D pays the drug companies whatever they charge.)

On a website labelled Voters for Cures, I found some slickly written justification for the lies in the ad.

“Seniors and people with disabilities have robust access to medicines in Medicare Part D due in large part to protections known as the “non-interference clause.” This clause prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from interfering in the private negotiations between manufacturers. Pharmacy benefit managers and Medicare Part D plans. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to repeal this important element of Part D. Without this protection government negotiations could directly and negatively impact access to lifesaving medications for patients.”
[This bit of sleight of hand arguing is available here.]

Let’s parse this out a bit: The access to medicines in Medicare Part D is because the government through Part D spends a tremendous amount of money buying drugs for seniors. This money goes to insurance companies who act as middlemen between the government and the drug companies. The Congressional Budget Office projects approximately $111 billion in spending by Part D for 2022. The so-called “non-interference clause” prohibits Medicare Part D from using that massive purchasing power to bargain down the prices that the drug companies charge. So the “non-interference clause” stops Medicare from interfering in the drug companies’ astronomical profits. The so-called “private negotiations” that occur now have no power to lower prescription drug costs purchased for seniors by Medicare. Finally, note the conditional: Without the “non-interference clause” the bargaining “COULD” interfere with access to “lifesaving medications.” If it COULD “negatively impact access” is also MIGHT NOT. Thus, the propagandists putting out this garbage can say they aren’t lying because they are not asserting that the proposed section of Build Back Better WILL DEFINITELY negatively impact access to lifesaving medications. As I said, pretty slick!

This is such garbage it drives me crazy to have to re-state the logic of this “argument” supporting that unbelievably dishonest ad. (Even the ad has the doctor say they have to check with Medicare to see if (IF!) the government will permit the patient access to a particular drug.) The lie is pretty blatant. After gratuitously lying that “they” are defunding the police (there is nothing in either Build Back Better or any other appropriations bill being considered by Congress that “defunds the police”), the actor playing the doctor in the ad says “they” are “defunding Medicare.” What this is referring to is that Medicare will SAVE MONEY which will then be used to provide Dental Coverage, Hearing Coverage and Vision Coverage and other EXPANSIIONS of Medicare coverage. YES, Medicare Part D will spend less money but the only entity being “defunded” is Big Pharma --- who will suffer a cut in profits.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence --- NONE --- that if Medicare Part D were permitted to negotiate drug prices important lifesaving drugs would disappear from the market.

Both the VA and insurance companies selling coverage to non-seniors do it now. The VA and the private insurers negotiate drug prices with the drug companies. However, their clout is much less than what Medicare Part D could do. (The VA for example spent about $7 billion a year on pharmaceuticals in 2017. Nevertheless, in that year they paid prices that were 50 percent of what Medicare Part D paid for the same drugs. [This information is available in a GAO report. ])

Do veterans lose access to life-saving drugs? Do those with private health insurance lose access??

If the TV ad from 60 Plus were part of a campaign extolling the virtues of a product, the FTC would demand proof of the claims made in the ad or a disclaimer that, for example, the assertion by individuals testifying on camera that a certain product “improves their memory” has not been verified by any scientific studies. Usually those disclaimers are in small print but at least they are there.

Unfortunately, political ads are exempt from these rules. This is probably for the best because the government should not be in the business of dictating what kinds of speech are “acceptable.” It might be extremely difficult to figure out a way to outlaw “lying” in political ads. The guiding theoretical justification for such a hands-off policy is that the best response to dishonest speech (and dishonest political advertising) is MORE speech and corrective advertising. I know this supposedly works in principle but consider this fact: The 60 Plus organization has a budget in the tens of millions. The ad that almost ruined by baseball day probably reached close to 8 million viewers. My counter on this radio station I imagine will reach only a small fraction of that number. And to top it off, 60 Plus can run that ad over and over again. This commentary gets broadcast once and then the written version ends up on the web page where it is available to read but again in numbers that are a tiny fraction of what well financed propagandists can reach.

The only possible counter to the incredible dishonesty spewing from the rich propagandists’ megaphone is for all of us to call it out --- over and over again. The one thing we have --- aside from the fact that our side is telling the truth --- is numbers. If everyone who sees that ad reacts as I did and informs friends, family, co-workers, etc. of the dishonesty, then we have the human power to counteract the dollar power of the propagandists. There also is the possibility that some organizations will run ads IN FAVOR of the Build Back Better bill. I have even seen some ads specifically calling out the dishonesty of ads such as the one that ruined my baseball day.

So please do it. Make it your business to check out AND CALL OUT the various ads that are running against the Build Back Better bill. They are almost all totally dishonest.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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