Campaign 2012: The Return of the Death Panels

Photo credit: eleanor ryan

Health care was supposed to be President Obama’s issue in 2012. The 2009 Obamacare law was hailed as his signature legislative achievement, but it’s never been popular. Its most onerous provisions were timed to kick in after the election specifically to avoid damaging the re-election effort. For months, the Obama campaign tried to negate the issue. It spent a great deal of energy seeking to inoculate itself from Mitt Romney’s attacks by claiming the Massachusetts health care law passed when Mr. Romney was governor was “just like Obamacare.”

Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters claimed to be thrilled by Mr. Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. The spin was that Mr. Ryan’s budget plan provided the necessary contrast to Obamacare to enable Democrats to move to the offensive. Pro-Obama commentators resurrected the allegation that the Ryan plan would “end Medicare as we know it,” a charge the nonpartisan fact checkers at Politifact dubbed the “lie of the year” in December 2011. Meanwhile, Republicans highlighted the $716 billion that Obamacare cuts from Medicare, a fact affirmed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. This cut was the talking point that stuck.

The Obama campaign has had to contend with a serious pre-existing condition, namely a lack of support from seniors. According to the latest Gallup data, Mr. Romney enjoys an 11-point advantage among voters age 65 and older. Among the same group, Mr. Obama’s approval rating is 37 percent, the lowest of any age demographic. Medicare is a critical election issue in general. A recent poll by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that 73 percent of respondents described Medicare as “very important” or “extremely important” in determining their votes. Mr. Obama now must explain to this skeptical cohort why he chose to cut a very popular program to pay for his very unpopular law.

Death panels also are back. At an appearance in Florida over the weekend, Mr. Ryan criticized the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) established under Obamacare to “contain” Medicare costs. The law “puts a board of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of Medicare who are required to cut Medicare in ways that will lead to denied care for current seniors,” he said. “We will make sure that this board of bureaucrats will not mess with my mom’s health care or your mom’s health care.”

Obamacare defenders scoff at the idea that the IPAB’s decisions would have fatal consequences for seniors, but the panel has been given an extraordinary and perhaps unconstitutional degree of power. Its proposals automatically become law unless Congress counters it with another plan. Overriding the IPAB requires a three-fifths supermajority in the Senate. The Obamacare law dictates that Congress may not even propose doing away with the IPAB until 2017 and may not actually get rid of it until 2020. This dubious provision undercuts the argument that the IPAB is a harmless advocate for government efficiency.

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