PolitiFact Florida: Republican PAC misleads in ad about Sen. Bill Nelson’s record on Social Security, Medicare

Sen. Bill Nelson rides the Capitol subway on April 18, 2018. [ALEX LEARY | Tampa Bay Times]
Sen. Bill Nelson rides the Capitol subway on April 18, 2018. [ALEX LEARY | Tampa Bay Times]
Published June 25 2018
Updated June 25 2018

A new ad portrays Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson as a career politician who doesnít have the backs of senior citizens.

The New Republican PAC, which is backing Gov. Rick Scott in Floridaís closely watched Senate race, released a 30-second ad criticizing Nelsonís voting record in Congress.

The ad juxtaposes Nelsonís mugshots from the 1970s to the 2000s with claims about his votes on Medicare and Social Security, two federal programs that largely benefit seniors, at the time.

"Politician Bill Nelson continues to run for public office, leaving few footprints behind," a narrator says. "Votes with Hillary Clinton 89 percent of the time. And raises taxes again. Cuts to Medicare providers, weakens Social Security protections."

We wanted to get to the bottom of the adís claim: Did Nelson vote to cut Medicare providers and weaken Social Security protections?

The PAC cited two measures that Nelson supported in 2011 and 2013 affecting Medicare.

The 2011 vote was for the Budget Control Act, and the 2013 vote was for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

Understanding how those votes can be characterized as "cuts to Medicare providers" requires a lot of context and a little history lesson on the 2011 sequester.

Letís start with Nelsonís vote on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The budget passed the Senate 64-36, and every Democrat, including Nelson, voted in favor.

The legislation averted a government shutdown in January 2014 by funding federal agencies and providing some relief from the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration in 2011.

Hereís the relevant background: In the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama and Congress were engaged in a high-stakes standoff over the debt limit. House Republicans insisted on spending cuts before increasing the debt limit.

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried unsuccessfully to reach a "grand bargain" to put the federal budget on more stable footing. When that failed, they arrived at the much less ambitious Budget Control Act of 2011.

That law included about $1.2 trillion in future budget cuts, but it also directed Congress to find another $1.2 trillion via a bipartisan "supercommittee." As further incentive, the law had a threat: If a supercommittee couldnít agree on a package, or if Congress voted down the supercommittee proposal, a "sequester" ó or across-the-board cut ó would automatically go into effect, with half coming from defense.

Sequestration was enacted when Congress passed the Budget Control Act in August 2011.

The 2013 budget extended a 2 percent spending cut to Medicare provider and plan payments.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the 2 percent cut translated to a reduction of $11.1 billion for Medicare providers in fiscal year 2013.

"That means that doctors, hospitals, and providers will continue to bill Medicare in the normal way but will be reimbursed at 98 cents on the dollar, as will per-capita premium payments made to health insurance plans on behalf of Medicare participants," the center wrote in its analysis.

So thatís a cut, but experts suggested the ad is overplaying it.

First, the cut was intended as a short-term bridge to a more permanent solution to spiraling Medicare provider costs.

Second, the provision was a stopgap alternative to a much larger cut that would have gone into effect if nothing else was passed, said Stuart Guterman, a senior health care scholar at the Commonwealth Fund, which supports expanding health care access for the poor.

The final Medicare physician fee schedule rule called for a 20.1 percent reduction in the fee schedule update for 2014. By passing the legislation cited in the ad, Congress was also able to block the 20.1 percent cut and replace it with a small increase for services provided through March 31, 2014.

All in all, Joe Antos, a health policy specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said "Two percent is clearly a minor reduction."

The last point weíll make about both bills is that they were bipartisan and passed by significant margins. And 28 Republicans including Mitch McConnell, who leads the Senate GOP majority that Scott hopes to join, supported the 2011 measure.

To push back on this claim, Nelsonís camp said that he opposed cuts to Medicare in 2017 when the November GOP tax plan threatened to make cuts to Social Security (At the time, the CBO predicted the plan could cut $25 billion from Medicare.) They also pointed to legislation he sponsored such as measure to end a Medicare policy that causes seniors to be charged unknowingly with high costs after receiving medical care.

The ad also hammers Nelson for harming Social Security in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, first with a "cut" and then by weakening its protections.

To support its claim, the pro-Scott group cited two votes Nelson took in 2006 and 2007.

Itís misleading to characterize those as votes in favor of "weakening Social Security protections."

The votes involved essentially the same measure and were introduced by the same lawmaker, then-Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. DeMintís amendments aimed to create a reserve fund for Social Security.

So, the vote wasnít explicitly looking to weaken Social Security protections. By voting against it, Nelson opposed adding something to the existing program.

The amendment failed both times, with Nelson and every other Democrat voting against the measures. According to the Democrats who voted against it, the amendment was a step toward Social Security privatization, which critics argued would worsen solvency, not strengthen it.

Supporters of the amendment, including DeMint, argued that setting up a reserve fund would stop Congress from borrowing money from the Social Security Trust Fund.

Andrew Biggs, a Social Security policy specialist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the claim about Nelson "iffy."

In addition, in 2015, Nelson cosponsored legislation to boost Social Security and other critical benefits for seniors and more recently, he filed legislation to waive the 30-day requirement with respect for Social Security to ensure that residents of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands affected by hurricanes would have immediate access to Social Security benefits.

He also was endorsed by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in April.

We rate this Mostly False.

Edited for print. Read more at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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