Is opposing health care reform a crime?
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched an investigation into Humana Inc.’s effort to enlist beneficiaries to fight proposed cuts to Medicare’s private plans.
The investigation, launched Friday, is looking at whether Humana, one of the largest providers of Medicare Advantage plans, violated marketing rules by sending letters to beneficiaries in Michigan, Florida and other states urging them to contact lawmakers to register their opposition to proposed cuts.
The letters state that “millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable”—a claim congressional Democrats say is false.
CMS is also examining Humana’s online Partner program, which automatically drafts letters that people can send to their lawmakers opposing cutbacks. Officials on Friday requested that the company stop the mailings and shut down the Web site.
Now I’m no fan of Medicare Advantage, which is simply a government health care program with a market facade. And it’s true that since Humana makes about half its money from the program, it’s subject to strict marketing rules governing its communications with its customers. But it is painfully obvious—and alarming—that Humana is not being investigated for its “marketing” practices. It is being investigated because it had the gall to challenge the assertions of a member of Congress.
Note that the investigation was launched, not at the behest of some expert on insurance marketing regulations, but at the urging of Senator Max Baucus, who railed that “It is wholly unacceptable for insurance companies to mislead seniors regarding any subject—particularly on a subject as important to them, and to the nation, as health care reform. . . . I’m not going to let insurance company profits stand in the way of improving Medicare for seniors.”
The implication is that Humana must be investigated for in effect defrauding its customers by misleading them about the nature of Baucus’s proposal. But what did Humana’s “fraudulent” claim consist of? Well, no one disputes the fact that the budget for Medicare Advantage could be slashed under the health care bills now in Congress. The dispute is over the effects this will have. Humana claimed it could potentially lead to some of its customers losing benefits—not an unreasonable view—but Baucus insists “The health care reform bill we released…strengthens Medicare and does not cut benefits.”
Think for a moment about the mind-numbing complexity of today’s laws, think of the Ivy League experts who line up on every side of every issue, think of the conflicting claims, conflicting studies, and conflicting facts, pseudo-facts, and non-facts Americans must process to reach a conclusion about what a given bill will do. Then: think of what it would mean for politicians—hardly notorious for their scrupulous honesty—to be able to punish Americans because our claims about the effects of a proposed law conflict with their assertions.
In a free country, it is not a crime to question the claims of one’s political leaders. If Baucus’s action is allowed to go unchallenged, however, free speech is gravely threatened.
American politicians have bullied political opponents before. Republican and Democratic administrations used the Fairness Doctrine threats to silence their political opposition. More recently, Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller warned ExxonMobil to stop funding climate change skeptics. But this latest act of intimidation is the first case I’m aware of where a politician openly declared that his political opponents should be investigated for “misrepresenting” his policies.
To be sure, our leaders will insist that the rest of us have nothing to worry about, that Humana is a special case, and that everyone else will remain free to criticize the government. Don’t bet on it. If the government can suppress the political speech of Humana because it opposes those in power, it can suppress the speech of any corporation, and if it can suppress the speech of a corporation (which is nothing more than an association of individuals), then there is no reason in logic why it cannot do the same to individuals.
Whatever one’s views on health care, it should go without saying that nothing could be more dangerous than allowing government representatives to get away with bullying and silencing those who challenge their claims.