June 22, 2018
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Let’s not be Medicare idiots again

By Dr. Erik Steele

There are a lot of smart people out there on the national political scene who think you and I are idiots. In fact, they are planning on it, and assuming we can be manipulated for their benefit when debates about controlling Medicare costs heat up in the next two years. They are strategists and politicians from both major political parties, and don’t care if you are a Republican or Democrat; all they care is that you keep being an idiot about reining in the ruinous costs of Medicare.

If you do that, then they can manipulate your fears about the future of Medicare in order to get your vote. They just develop campaign strategies that assume you are too dumb and scared to vote for anyone who talks about reducing future costs of the federal health insurance program that does or will pay most of your medical bills, and portray their opposition as trying to “ruin Medicare for our seniors.”

Truth be told, theirs is a good bet; to date, many of us have been easily manipulated whenever this topic has come up. We have let politicians on both sides cast their opposition as wolves whenever that opposition brought up the idea of Medicare cost control. Many of us have then run like sheep into the fold of the party that looked most like the protective Medicare shepherd.

When the health care debate of 2009 took up the issue of Medicare spending on patients in the last few months of their lives, talk of “government death panels” sent us fleeing from the critically important topic of how we all live our dying days, and from supporting health reform. In the congressional elections of 2010, Americans over the age of 65 voted Republican by a 59 percent to 38 percent margin in part because Republicans successfully suggested the Obama health care reform plan was going to ruin Medicare, America’s most popular health insurance program. Many Republican politicians ran ad campaigns that castigated Democrats for threatening Medicare in order to make political hay of our Medicare cuts paranoia.

Now it will be the Democrats’ turn to cast Republicans as the Medicare wolves in the hope we will respond like idiot sheep again, but run this time to the Democratic Medicare shepherd. Last week, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved a federal budget proposal that would dramatically change Medicare in order to control the runaway costs of the program. Democrats were quick to leap: “In the months to come, we will not miss a single opportunity to remind the public that Republicans voted to end Medicare benefits in order to give extra tax breaks to millionaires,” said New York state’s Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer in response to the Republican plan.

Schumer was essentially saying Democrats can scare Americans about the Republican position on Medicare in the months leading up to national elections in 2012 just as effectively as Republicans did in the months leading up to November 2010. He was also essentially admitting his party could fail to lead on this issue just as much as Republicans have.

What neither party has acknowledged is their complicity in distracting us with this “we protect Medicare and they don’t” rhetoric from the reality both parties know: that Medicare spending must be brought under control or it will kill our national economy, and that spending cannot be brought under control without difficult, unpopular decisions both parties will have to support.

That means any political party telling you its politicians don’t believe Medicare spending must be cut is effectively lying. It also means any party that hopes you can be scared into voting for its candidates by suggesting theirs is the only party that does not believe Medicare spending must face the ax thinks you are an idiot.

Let’s prove them all wrong this time. Let’s face the reality that Medicare spending must be corralled with calm courage, demand informed and thoughtful debate about how that can be achieved with the least harm to patients, and fire politicians who poison that discussion with politically motivated Medicare scare tactics. They will only stop assuming we are fearful idiots about Medicare spending when we prove them wrong.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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