Something quite disturbing is happening this week in the nation’s Capitol. Bureaucrats in one of the federal government’s biggest departments have issued a gag order against what they deem to be unfair criticism of President Barack Obama’s health care reform proposals. Not only are these bureaucrats making a mockery of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, they are also denying information millions of elderly Americans have a right to receive.
Here’s the situation: Earlier this month, officials with the Louisville, Ky.-based Humana Corp. sent a one-page letter to all of its policyholders who participate in the Medicare Advantage program. The letter was entirely factual and pointed out, among other things, that as a result of cuts in the program proposed under Obamacare, “millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable.”
The Humana letter angered Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, who is the principal author of the Senate version of Obamacare, which indeed includes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of savings to be achieved by eliminating waste and fraud in the Medicare Advantage program. Such “savings” are Washington, D.C., code for politicians claiming tax dollars have been saved when in fact nothing of the kind has happened — total spending on the program in question has simply been reduced.
The bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which manages Medicare, responded to Baucus’ anger by ordering Humana and all other private companies participating in the Medicare Advantage program to “end immediately all such mailings to beneficiaries and to remove any related materials directed to Medicare enrollees from [their] Web site.” They also added this blunt warning: “Please be advised that we take this matter very seriously and, based upon the findings of our investigation, will pursue compliance and enforcement actions.”
There’s no doubt that any speech about Obamacare by private citizens or companies — including false speech, according to federal courts — is protected under the First Amendment. Yet, here we see the full power of the federal government being used to crush what some bureaucrats and an angry senator deem as “bad” speech.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech to the Senate on Wednesday, “This episode should be of serious concern to millions of seniors on Medicare who deserve to know what the government has in mind for their health care. But it should also frighten anyone who cherishes their First Amendment right to free speech — whether in Louisville, Helena, [Mont.], San Francisco or anywhere else.”
We agree. And we wonder what, if anything, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will do about it.