By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Ever since President Barack Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress about healthcare reform, his administration and its allies on Capitol Hill have been trying to refocus the debate. They want to move attention off their plan for reform and put it back on the insurance companies, which their pollsters tell them are about as popular with the American people as, well, Congress.
It's an interesting strategy—and one that might have worked if the Democrats were not so heavy handed.
Early this week, acting at the request of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Democrat from Montana, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services imposed a "gag rule" on the nation's health insurers to block them from telling seniors how Obama's proposed reforms might affect their healthcare and their coverage.
Unfortunately this latest gag rule fits in all too easily alongside the Democrats' other efforts to muzzle the opposition in the healthcare debate. Telling the insurance companies they can't talk to their customers is just like telling members of Congress they can't mail out the chart explaining how the new healthcare system would work to their constituents. Or trying to control access to town hall meetings on healthcare by requiring folks to show picture ids or letting Obamacare supporters fill the room an hour before everyone else is allowed in.
The latest "push back against the push back" on the gag rule includes the allegation that the Obama administration is within its rights to block companies from communicating with their customers because their contracts with CMS prevent them from doing so.
Not so fast, says Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, who points to a Clinton administration ruling establishing the right of private healthcare plans that offer Medicare benefits to communicate with their customers about pending legislation.
Camp says Bruce Merlin Fried, who served as director of Clinton's Center for Health Plans and Providers, instructed health plans in 1997 that, "prohibiting such information would violate basic freedom of speech and other constitutional rights of the Medicare beneficiary as a citizen. As long as member materials that discuss the rights and responsibilities of the member and the HMO with regard to HMO membership are not misrepresented in the context of (the) article, we see no reason for prohibiting the distribution of information."
Critics of the insurance company communication that provoked the investigation, including Sen. Baucus, say the information being conveyed was inaccurate, which would run counter to the policy Fried established. But, healthcare experts say, the mailing that triggered the gag rule in fact provided accurate information about the impact of proposed Medicare Advantage cuts, backed up by the analysis of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
The CBO, incidentally, determined that the proposed cuts could cause millions of seniors to lose access to their plans and others could see their benefits cut or out-of-pocket costs go up.
"The more we uncover about this gag order, the more disturbing it becomes," Camp said in a statement. "The White House is clearly trying to keep seniors from learning the facts about their proposed Medicare cuts. Reversing precedent and abusing the federal government's regulatory authority to restrict the constitutionally protected flow of information is wrong and unethical. We need to get to the bottom of this and we need to make sure all Americans, and especially seniors, know the facts about what the President and Congressional Democrats' healthcare bill will mean for them."
Moreover, the action taken by the Obama administration fails as a political strategy because it doesn't demonize the insurance companies; it makes the government look even more heavy-handed. And fear of a heavy-handed government is one of the principle reasons the push for healthcare reform stalled in the first place.