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Rekha Basu: Don't be swayed by fear-mongering ads from unclear interests

From the commentary: So do the research and vet these ads before believing them. And to poor Mrs. Smith, please get a real doctor, and take heart that your drug prices should actually go down. Unless, of course, you're diabetic.

A pedestrian walks past the Leading Insurance Agency, which offers plans under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) on Jan. 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
A pedestrian walks past the Leading Insurance Agency, which offers plans under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) on Jan. 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS
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A grim-faced doctor walks into an examining room where an anxious white-haired woman sits on the table, awaiting news. “Mrs. Smith, I have your test results here,” the doctor announces as the woman smiles up at him. “The news isn’t good."

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Perhaps you've seen this TV ad, which was airing in Des Moines and had me alternately laughing out loud and wanting to throw something at the screen — neither the most useful or mature response.

The smile fades. The camera pans down to her clutched, wrinkled hands as he continues, “Unfortunately, Congress is considering a bill that would strip nearly $300 billion in Medicare to pay for Obamacare, and research on this treatment may be stopped.”

Close-up on the woman's face — bewildered, scared — as the doctor tells her to get her affairs in order: "I wish I had better treatment options for you, but I really think it’s time you start talking to your family. I’m sorry." Then he abruptly walks out, leaving her to gaze heavenward.

Have they no shame? The ad was placed by an outfit called “Center for Innovation and Free Enterprise, a project of Americans for A Balanced Budget, Inc.,” about which little is known. A message on the screen instructs viewers to "Call Iowa's Democratic Congresswoman Cindy Axne and tell her to oppose the federal Budget Reconciliation bill" — the Inflation Reduction Act that passed the Senate last week.

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Besides the fact a real doctor saying such things should be fired for spreading bogus fears in a vulnerable patient in the defense of drug manufacturers' obscene profits, the law would actually benefit patients. A similar ad in another market "misleadingly paints what is more accurately characterized as nearly $300 billion in savings for consumers and taxpayers," says Politifact, the fact-checking arm of the Poynter Institute journalism think tank. That ad is attributed to the American Prosperity Alliance.

The New York Times explains what the bill would do: “For the first time, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate with drugmakers on the price of prescription medicines, a proposal projected to save the federal government billions of dollars. That would apply to 10 drugs initially, beginning in 2026, and then expand to include more drugs in the following years.”

As for the Obamacare part, the Times notes that its subsidies were expanded last year under the Democratic-passed $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package. It would either make some plans free for lower-income people or extend "some support to higher-income people who previously did not receive any aid," the Times says. Those subsidies are set to expire at the end of the year, but the law would continue them for three more years.

The Times says this would represent the largest expansion of federal health policy since passage of the Affordable Care Act, capping out-of-pocket costs for seniors at $2,000 a year, and ensuring their vaccines were free.

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The Washington Post provides this context: When Medicare Part D, which pays for prescription drugs, was first passed under President George W. Bush, the federal government was prevented from negotiating drug prices. That was left to manufacturers, private health plans, and pharmacies, all of which had their own interests. But having the federal Health and Human Services Department directly negotiate prices should bring down the cost of drugs, especially newer, high-priced medications.

What the ad is really saying is that if drug manufacturers were compelled to give up any profits, they might respond by cutting spending on researching new drugs. And if that were to happen, it's those companies consumers should be instructed to call — to stop feeding off the pain of ordinary Americans who can't afford obscenely inflated drug prices.

So, why are these ads being placed? "The American Prosperity Alliance has almost no online profile," says Politifact. Online, the Alliance says its public policy project prioritizes limited government and free markets: "We support an economy in which the prices for goods and services are determined by the open market and consumers, in which the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority."

In plain English, it believes that having the government intervene on behalf of consumers threatens to restrain unchecked profits to industry.

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In other words, that's good.

What isn't good, and what campaign ads for the upcoming elections should be seizing upon, is that Senate Republicans, including Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, sold out people with diabetes during debate on that same budget reconciliation bill. They blocked a provision to cap out-of-pocket pay for insulin at $35 a month under private insurance.

With midterm elections three months away, we'll be seeing lots of political ads making grandiose claims for or against candidates or issues. And under the Supreme Court's ill-advised Citizens United ruling, corporations can and will spend limitless amounts to influence public opinion. That can — and in my view has in recent years — gotten ordinary, working people to vote against their own economic interests, with disastrous consequences.

So do the research and vet these ads before believing them. And to poor Mrs. Smith, please get a real doctor, and take heart that your drug prices should actually go down. Unless, of course, you're diabetic.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

©2022 Des Moines Register. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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