Z. Byron Wolf reports: Democrats announced yesterday that HHS was investigating whether the insurer Humana was misleading seniors about health reform legislation. And CMS, the government entity within HHS that administers Medicare told Humana, in no uncertain terms, to cease and desist lobbying its customers on health reform legislation .
But today Republicans accused the White House and CMS of trying to implement a “gag order” on insurance companies that provide Medicare Advantage programs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell does not normally get riled up, but he just gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor about the gag order, Humana, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who initiated the HHS investigation. McConnell referred to Baucus only as “a colleague.”
“Using the full weight of the federal government’s enforcement powers to stifle free speech should trouble all Americans — and all of us — even more,” McConnell said. “We cannot allow government officials to target individuals or companies because they do not like what they have to say.”
“Shut up! the government says,” said McConnell on the Senate floor of the CMS letter to Humana. “Don’t communicate with your customers. Be quiet and get in line,” he said facetiously.
There are two points to remember here. Human is based in Kentucky, so McConnell is quick to protect them. And second, he is a staunch defender of the first amendment. For instance, McConnell is the often the only Republican to vote against a flag burning amendment when it periodically arises.
In a written statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner calls a letter of rebuke from CMS Humana “outrageous” and accuses the White House of “trying to keep seniors in the dark about the consequences of congressional Democrats’ costly government-run health care bills.”
“ Would the Administration impose this sort of gag order if seniors were being given information promoting the Obama health care plan? I don’t think so,” says Boehner in the statement. “Seniors have a right to know about the cost and consequences of the Democrats’ health care bills, and Republicans will continue to tell the American people the facts about the nearly $500 billion in Medicare cuts that Democrats are proposing.”
CMS told Humana in its own letter yesterday, not to lobby its customers on the issue.
“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,” according to a letter addressed from Teresa DeCaro, a CMS employee, to executives at Humana.
In its mailer to people enrolled in Humana Medicare Advantage programs, Humana said bills being considered in Washington include cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Medicare Advantage programs.
Saving costs by making Medicare more efficient and cutting down on fraud in Medicaid are key sources of revenue Democrats envision paying for their health reform overhaul.
Humana admits in its letter that Medicare and Medicaid need to be run more efficiently, but adds, “if the proposed funding cut levels become law, millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services (emphasis theirs) that make Medicare Advantage valuable.
The insurer also entreats its members to join a “partner” program to get information from Humana about health reform and to contact their Congressman about how important Medicare Advantage is. It is that last part, lobbying, that most frustrated the Democrats.