Seniors should hear all sides of Obamacare

Freedom New Mexico

A flap over what critics are calling a gag order on a major provider of Medicare Advantage health insurance policies raises immediate questions about a bureaucracy constraining First Amendment free-speech rights — and a longer-term concern about whether deepening government involvement in health care could mean curtailing informed discussion of policies on an ongoing basis.

Humana, Inc., a major provider of Medicare Advantage plans, which allow Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in health plans with expanded benefits managed by private companies, sent a letter to 1.5 million customers earlier this month warning that insurance reforms being considered in Congress could lead to “millions of seniors” losing “many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare advantage health plans so valuable.

Then the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) ordered Humana to cease sending customers such letters, which it characterized as “misleading and confusing to beneficiaries, who may believe it represents official communications about the Medicare Advantage program.”

Humana stopped the program and shut down the portion of its Web site that contained a form e-mail customers could send to their congressional representatives.

Two things are disturbing about the incident. The first is that Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman who is shepherding one version of health care reform through the legislative process, has acknowledged that he urged CMS to begin the probe into Humana. Jonathan Blum, acting director of CMS, was previously a Baucus staffer.

The second is that the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons (AARP) has also been conducting an aggressive health-care reform lobbying campaign, spending millions on TV ads and sending 8 million letters out over Labor Day. AARP also sponsors or endorses Medicare Advantage policies, but it has not been ordered to cease and desist. Could that be because it supports some version of ObamaCare rather than expressing skepticism?

As it happens, last week the Congressional Budget Office issued a report saying that cutting $123 million from Medicare Advantage, as Sen. Baucus’ legislation contemplates, would result in lower benefits and some 2.7 million people losing this coverage. In other words, Humana’s warning was correct.

We do not begrudge AARP the right to lobby on one side of this contentious issue. Having a government agency restrain Humana from lobbying on the other side, however, strikes us as using an obscure bureaucracy to use taxpayers’ money to take a particular side in an ongoing controversy, restraining free speech on a dubious bureaucratic pretext.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should immediately lift its gag order on Humana. The debate over health care reform is complex and often confusing, to be sure. But we shouldn’t have the government dictating what can and can’t be said about such a consequential proposal.