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Posted by on Mar 20, 2010 in Politics | 12 comments

Romancing the Health Care Memo Hoax

If you were awake and even glancing at the news yesterday, you likely caught wind of a fast breaking kerfuffle in the ongoing health care reform debate. Republicans were excitedly talking up a supposed “leaked memo” which was – eventually – alleged to have originated from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office, instructing Democrats to avoid talking about planned increases in Medicare reimbursement rates later this year which would wipe out the savings currently claimed in the CBO’s scoring. As political catnip goes, this one was pure dynamite. Unfortunately for the blogosphere, the story seems to be falling apart.

The meat of the story – that being the alleged contents of the memo – isn’t the part in question here. It’s no secret that Congress will put in the so called “doc fix” later on, just as they have done in the past. This will drive up the costs well past any alleged “savings” in the current bill and turn it into yet another budget buster. The Democrats had to torture this bill in a way that would have made Torquemada blush to come up with something that looked like a net deficit reducer.

No, the real question here is where the memo came from and if the media – both new and old – should have run with the story without some deeper source checking. Copies of the damning document apparently came from John Boehner’s communications shop, in the person of Michael Steel. (No, not that Michael Steele.) Conservatives felt that the document had an original, authentic look and feel to it, but Marc Ambinder points out why the sourcing on the story was simply not up to snuff.

I do not believe that Mr. Steel or a member of his staff created the memo. You may ask why I believe this, and my reasons won’t satisfy many of you, but here goes: I’ve know Steel for years. He is a stand-up guy and isn’t dishonest; in trickier situations, he’s told me the truth. Here he may have been overzealous, and I fell for it on a slow Friday afternoon.

I asked Mr. Steel where he got the memo; he would not reveal his source. I asked him whether he believed that the memo was an official leadership, White House or DNC document, and here is his response: “Will the Democrats do the “doc fix”? If they will, they are low-balling the cost of health care by hundreds of billions of dollars.”

That’s the Dan Rather Excuse — can’t say for sure that the memo is real, but it surely brings up real points. That’s satisfactory, I guess, for the Republicans, but it shouldn’t be. It isn’t satisfactory to me, or to my readers.

Marc hits it on the head here. Plenty of my conservative friends still enjoy bringing up the Dan Rather story to this day, and “fake but accurate” has become a common talking point when discussing alleged stories about documents which later fall through. And for this story as well, fake but accurate isn’t going to cut it. If Steel didn’t want the name of his source revealed in public, he could still have told Ambinder who could have then verified it to his satisfaction and let us know that he found a Democratic source, leaving it up to us to determine how much we trusted his journalistic integrity. Steel’s answer just casts more doubt on the story and leaves it unfit for print.

Should the conservative bloggers have known better? That one is a tougher call. Plenty of folks ran the story, including my friend Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. When the challenges to the document’s authenticity arose, he updated with this:

When Politico went live with this article, I had confirmed with two people I know on the Hill that they had seen this being passed around. Did it come from Democrats, or from Republicans? I can’t answer that, but I did confirm with two sources that it exists.

Let’s face it… that’s a lot more checking than many bloggers would (or could) do, and this isn’t one of those totally unsourced, unchecked stories that ruin a blog’s reputation, such as what happened to Radar Online after the John Roberts resignation hoax. But still, I think we have to hold Politico to a bit of a higher standard. Ed at least checked with “two people on the hill” but we don’t know who they are. Were they Democrats from Hoyer’s office? If so, that would pretty much put the issue to rest. But I somehow doubt Steny’s staff would be all that eager to chat with Ed about things damaging to the Democrats.

Plenty of authors confirmed that somebody had “seen the thing” and that it “existed.” Of that I have no doubt. Back in my Navy days I had a roommate who, for reasons I never figured out, had a framed picture of Whistler’s Mother on his wall. I saw it myself and can absolutely confirm that it existed. I can also absolutely confirm that it was a poster on shiny paper and not an original oil painting from the 1870’s. The real question here isn’t whether anyone actually had the memo. The question is it’s origin, as Marc Ambinder pointed out.

Again, should we have known better? Hindsight is always 20-20, so looking back, some bits of this really did look like they fell into the “too good to be true” category. The language was just a bit too overt in the tone of, “For God’s Sakes, let’s be sure to deceive the public and not talk about our not-very-secret plan to jack up the costs later!” I would hope that none of our regular TMV readers are wearing rose colored glasses leading them to think that our congressional leaders don’t regularly spin things and play fast and loose with the particulars to make their own side look good and their opponents look bad. But by this time, most of the people still drawing a paycheck on the hill should know better than to publish anything putting it so blatantly.

Let’s say you were reading an alleged document about Democrats worrying over the effect of health care reform on the mid-term elections. It might say, “we need to remain aware of poll numbers showing unfavorables regarding this bill which could negatively impact some contested races this fall.” Or, it might pull a quote directly from Mel Brookes’ classic, Blazing Saddles, and say, “Gentlemen! We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs!

Which one would you rather believe? I’d like the second one because it makes for much better headlines and a lot more fun. But I’d be more inclined to think the first one was real.

In the end, I suspect that this memo is going to fall into the Dan Rather, “fake but accurate” mold. The facts about the “doc fix” are almost certainly “accurate” but the “fake” part just eats up the story entirely.

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  • CStanley

    “fake but accurate”

    That’s almost certainly what this was.

    It’s too bad that there’s neither sufficient time, nor a sufficiently curious media, nor an intelligent enough electorate, to just handle this issue with the intelligence it deserves. If there was a reasonable amount of time between the posting of the final bill and CBO scoring, and the vote on the bill, then the media could help the public see the problem by asking pointed questions of the Dem leadership (“Madame Speaker, will you go on the record saying that you will not introduce a bill as has been done in the past, commonly called the ‘doc fix’, which will override the currently prescribed provider payment cuts in Medicare?” and then when she says that they will have to address this separately, follow up by asking her to acknowledge that this completely changes the supposed ‘deficit reduction’ of the HCR bill.)

    • Truthfairy1

      The issue here is the deceit and dishonesty of the Republican leadership in circulating such a fake memo to the media on the eve of the final vote, trying to foment more negative attitudes than their irresponsible propaganda already has.

      It is somewhat more dramatic, but no different, than their hogging TV news on the eve of the Health Summit to dishonestly frame the lawful procedure of reconciliation as “toxic”, again pre-conditioning voter & media opinion negatively.

      “Fake but accurate” no just “Fake”. and completely manufactured by grotesque Republican chicanery, about which they are not even embarrassed. That’s how comfortable they are with lying to us.

      If you are so concerned about health care costs & the deficit, consider the subject of the following excerpts – BUSH/Republican 2003 Medicare Rx Drug Improvement & Modernization Act, which was deficit-funded:

      2004 Medicare Trustees Report:
      The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 introduces the most sweeping changes to Medicare since the program’s enactment in 1965. Many of these changes have important financial implications. Total Medicare expenditures were 2.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2003. In 2006, with the implementation of the new prescription drug benefit, total expenditures are estimated to be 3.4 percent of GDP and to increase rapidly to 7.7 percent by 2035 and to 13.8 percent by 2078……As indicated, part of the projected substantial increase is attributable to the new prescription drug benefit in Medicare. In its first full year
      of operation, this benefit is expected to increase Medicare costs by nearly one-fourth.”

      Analysis of Medicare Trustees 2005 Annual Report by National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare – National Committee’s Concerns:
      The 2005 Medicare trustees’ report shows that seniors will have to pay ever-increasing premiums and deductibles for Part B and Part D….Medicare’s Part B premium for 2006 is on track to become one of the largest premium increases in the Medicare program’s history.
      Seniors will continue to face ever-increasing premiums because the prescription drug law fails to provide meaningful mechanisms to contain health care costs. The prescription drug law does not effectively permit the importation of low-cost prescription drugs from other industrialized countries. Drugs that are manufactured in the United States or in FDA-approved plants are often sold for much less in other industrialized nations. In addition, the prescription drug law prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from using the federal government’s bulk purchasing power to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs. Price negotiation is a tool that has been used effectively by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and many state governments to deliver lower drug prices and could deliver similar positive results to Medicare beneficiaries.

      1. It wasn’t paid for & has added $1 trillion to the fed deficit
      2. It is responsible for sending Rx drug prices & premiums to unsustainable heights
      3. It is responsible for increasing Medicare costs by 25%
      4. It stuck American seniors with unaffordable Rx price increases because it not only didn’t control costs, it purposefully “fixed” high prices – by outlawing cheaper imports & inhibiting Medicare from negotiating lower prices
      5. It resulted in windfall profits for pharma & provider companies of $160 – $200 billion

      Sorry to shatter your illusions, but not only did the “fiscally conservative” GOP 2003 drug benefit bill caused Rx & premium prices to skyrocket, punishing America’s seniors & disabled, BUT it has caused an unplanned 25% increase in Medicare’s costs, AND it wasn’t paid for so it has added $1 trillion to federal deficit & $7 trillion to Medicare unfunded liability.

      Obama’s health reform will put an end to the worst parts of the GOP bill, but much of the damage is done. The most vocal anti-Obama reform Republicans, including those involved with the hoax memo, Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Grassley, Pence, McCain, Inhofe & Ryan ALL VOTED for the disastrous 2003 bill – – which was written behind closed doors by lobbyists! In consideration of this, their tawdry hoax is all the more egregious. Under the Influence

  • GeorgeSorwell

    The Democrats have struggled to produce a bill that would get a good CBO score. This is something I’ve never heard of from the Republicans, who seem to feel–despite all objective evidence–that they deserve to be considered the party of fiscal responsibility.

    Also, Republicans generally become quite offended when someone suggests that George W Bush hoodwinked an incurious media and an unintelligent electorate over the invasion of Iraq. Yet they have no compunction at all in suggesting Obama is lying over an important matter of policy they disagree with.

  • Janjanjan

    My biggest problem with the Republican side of the HCR debate is that their rhetoric no longer seems directed at substantive issues. Instead it seems directed at the purely political perception that killing reform means the Dems will lose. Of course, they say the exact opposite. I’ve never seen so many crocodile tears!

    • CStanley

      The irony from my perspective (as a conservative) is that nearly all of the rhetoric from the Dems for the past year and a half has been directed at the purely political perception that the GOP is obstructing their noble efforts at healthcare reform (using this to deflect attention from the fact that their reform efforts are useless at best or potentially harmful at best) instead of allowing attention to focus on what the bills will actually accomplish and debating on the merits.

  • GeorgeSorwell

    I’m not sure how many links I can safely post in this thread. So I’m going to link to one of my own comments from last summer, which quotes several elected Republicans as saying defeating healthcare reform will “break Obama” and benefit their party in the 2010 elections.

    Pushing my luck on links, here’s one to a report on how Republican Senator Charles Grassley wouldn’t vote for his own bipartisan reform bill.

    Blue Dog Democrats did the work most Republicans refused to do.

    I hope that HTML works!!

    • archangel

      your links indeed worked fine George, just wanted to let you know.


      • GeorgeSorwell

        I appreciate your paying attention to my concerns, Doc!!

  • DLS

    This whole health care “reform” effort has been Dem misconduct of the past year, on steroids.

    I’m just happy that at least so far, prior to Dem health care “reform,” that medical care itself, and especially risky things like surgery, aren’t normally done anywhere as badly as this “reform” effort.

  • DLS

    I’m surprised the lies about “the opposition” haven’t been pre-dissemenated before immigration “reform.”

    (Lesson learned by the Dems from their past year of overreach and maniacal urgency? No, it may be.)

  • elrod

    Or maybe the GOP is just desperate to defeat the health care bill because they know that the public will gravitate toward it over time and the Republicans will find themselves in the incongruous position in the future of opposing cuts to Obamacare, just as they claim to be Medicare’s champion now. So the GOP concocts a memo to make the Democrats look far more dastardly than they really are in hopes that a Blue Dog will get cold feet and bolt.

  • alleen

    I watched the debate last night on C-Span. The Republicans had us roaring with laughter. I can’t believe they didn’t crack THEMSELVES up with all the hypebolic B.S. they were slinging. I thought maybe Boehner was starting to smirk at one point. Just too hilarious.

    Not one specific example of how disastrous this bill would be. They never explain how Health Care reform would affect any specific person negatively. It’s all a lot of scary generalizations about the constitution and big government and socialism and fear and “backroom deals” and blah blah blah.

    When they get caught RED HANDED forging misleading memos and slipping them to their buddies in the press to create controversy…they just shrug. Whatever. No big deal apparently.


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