By Ellen Sauerbrey
Excuse me. Is this the former Soviet Union or the United States of America? A blatant effort by the powerful in government to censor speech with which they disagree makes one wonder what country we live in today. Every day seems to raise another challenge to fundamental freedoms.
In an outrageous and un-American attack on dissent aimed at Humana Inc., a major health insurer is being investigated for the crime of communicating its concerns about health care legislation to its enrollees. The mailing sent to seniors subscribed to the Medicare Advantage Program warned that "millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many … important benefits and services that make Medicare advantage health plans so valuable." The letter urges enrollees to protest the proposed legislation to their members of Congress.
Insurance experts argue that the proposal to cut “$123 billion in payments to insurance companies that insure about 10 million Medicare recipients will result in cuts in benefits. Most would agree that is a likely outcome.
But Congressional Democrats say “shut up”. Unhappy that an insurer disagrees with the impact of their legislative proposal, they have directed the Administration bureaucracy, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to go after Humana and any other insurance company that sends out letters that might alarm the elderly.
CMS has obliged by sending a warning to Humana. “CMS is concerned that, among other things, this information is misleading and confusing to beneficiaries, represents information to beneficiaries as official communications about the Medicare Advantage program, and is potentially contrary to federal regulations and guidance for the MA and Part D programs and other federal law, including HIPAA. As we continue our research into this issue, we are instructing you to end immediately all such mailings to beneficiaries and to remove any related materials directed to Medicare enrollees from your website…. Please be advised that we take this matter very seriously and, based upon the findings of our investigation, will pursue compliance and enforcement actions. “
A similar letter also went to other Medicare Advantage insurers warning them not to follow Humana’s lead. There is no doubt that such communication from a federal regulatory agency with power over an industry’s destiny would have a very chilling impact on freedom of expression.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) weighed in with its own attack on Humana. "The opponents of reform will stop at nothing to derail the process and protect their own vested interests, even if it means misleading older Americans." This from an organization experiencing membership flight by seniors who no longer feel that AARP represents their best interests.
Congressman John Boehner asked "would the Administration impose this sort of gag order if seniors were being given information promoting the Obama health care plan?" Great question! An amendment by Arizona Senator Jon Kyl aimed at protecting the First Amendment rights of insurers to criticize health care legislation was defeated on a strict party line vote with all Democrats in opposition.
Regardless of the merits of the Human letter, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said it best. “You have a right to be wrong.” At least in America we used to have that right.