EDITORIAL: Silencing opposition to government health care

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Seeing how the world works inside the Beltway is to receive a lesson in the arrogance of power. Anyone who has been to a ritzy Washington party has witnessed industry barons and corporate executives chortle at dumb jokes made by politicians and bureaucrats. Such fawning by titans of the private sector reveals how powerful government is. With the swipe of a pen, a bureaucrat can ruin a company or industry while enriching another. With the colossal expansion of government under President Obama, the subservience of the private sector to the public sector is growing, and with it comes increasing government intimidation. Today, the purveyors of nationalized health care are trying to silence opposition to an attempted government takeover.

A majority of Americans are against current plans to expand government’s power over health care. “Many senior citizens have come to rely on [Medicare Advantage] coverage, and suddenly walking away from it, I think, is unconscionable,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said on Tuesday. He was commenting on the health care bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. Mr. Nelson’s reaction is understandable. Medicare Advantage uses part of an enrollee’s Medicare benefits to offer supplemental benefits. Some plans limit members’ annual out-of-pocket spending on medical care, covering medical costs above a preset limit, say $5,000. Plans offer everything from dental coverage to vision coverage to other services not covered by Medicare.

Earlier this month, Humana Inc., one of the nation’s leading insurance providers, sent its customers who are enrolled in Medicare Advantage a simple one-page letter of warning. “If the proposed funding cut levels become law, millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable,” it said. The letter suggested two ways customers could “show Congress the importance of Medicare Advantage.” Those concerned could “Let your members of Congress know why Medicare Advantage is important to you,” and customers were invited to write Humana for more information.

That’s it. The Humana letter is a benign version of the same claims made by Mr. Nelson. But it was too much for Mr. Baucus, who complained to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the powerful federal agency that administers Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “It is wholly inappropriate 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,” Mr. Baucus thundered. The bureaucracy followed suit. “Please be advised that we take this matter very seriously and, based upon the findings of our investigation, will pursue compliance and enforcement actions,” wrote Teresa DeCaro, acting director of the Medicare Drug and Health Plan Contract Administration Group.

The government’s explicit threat of removing Humana from the Medicare system has barred the company from sending any more letters to its customers while the bureaucracy takes its time investigating the letter. One obvious problem with this investigative delay is that the bill is being marked up in the Senate this week, and the president wants it passed right away. In no uncertain terms, Big Brother is gagging a private company and preventing it from informing customers about an issue that concerns them and their care.

This government gag order is fair warning to anyone who thinks a government insurance plan will play fair with its private competitors. People should read the Humana letter to see the type of free speech that politicians like Mr. Baucus find threatening and are working to subvert. The episode shows why government should not be given more power.

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