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Fact-Checking Obama And Ryan Speeches To AARP


Today, we're launching a series called In Context. For the remainder of the presidential election, we'll take a moment from the campaign trail - a gaffe, a new TV ad or just a moment in a speech - and put it under a microscope. We'll try to get at what's true, what's false and examine the full context. Today, NPR's Julie Rovner is with us to talk about two appearances today in front of an important voting group.

President Obama and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan both spoke to the AARP. Hi there, Julie.


CORNISH: So we're going to start with President Obama because he went first, and what caught your ear, Julie?

ROVNER: Well, here's a line from his speech to the senior group that we hear a lot.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to emphasize Medicare and Social Security are not handouts. You've paid into these programs your whole lives. You've earned them.


CORNISH: All right, Julie. Most people would assume that that's true, that they've earned their Medicare and Social Security.

ROVNER: Well, it is and it isn't. People who get Social Security and Medicare feel like because they've paid taxes for those programs for so long, their whole working lives, they're just sort of getting their own money back. And for Social Security, that's mostly true. But for the vast majority of people, they get back far more in Medicare benefits than they pay in.

The Urban Institute, which is a think tank here in Washington, has been keeping track of these numbers for years now and it calculates that a two-earner couple earning an average salary who retired last year will have paid about $116,000 in Medicare taxes, but they can expect to get back about $351,000 in lifetime Medicare benefits. That's about three times what they paid in.

So yes, you earned those benefits, but other people's taxes are actually helping you pay your Medicare bills.

CORNISH: All right. Now, let's move on to Congressman Paul Ryan. I notice you've identified a couple of comments from him, but just one from the president.

ROVNER: Yeah, this was kind of a tough crowd for the chairman of the house budget committee. He's the author of a very controversial Medicare plan of his own, so I think he played some of his facts maybe a little more out of context, if you will, than the president who was speaking to a much friendlier audience.

But Congressman Ryan actually spent the first part of his speech criticizing President Obama's 2010 health law, which Republicans would like to repeal.

PAUL RYAN: First, it funnels $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for.

CORNISH: Now, for people following this stuff, they probably heard this number a lot. And it's correct but complicated, right?

ROVNER: That's right. That number gets thrown around in all sorts of very misleading context. First of all, it's worth pointing out that the budget written by Congressman Ryan and passed by the House, both this spring and last spring, makes exactly the same reductions to Medicare as the Affordable Care Act does. The difference is that in the Ryan budget, those reductions don't stay in the health care system. They're used to pay for tax cuts and other things.

In the Affordable Care Act, yes, some of the money does go to pay for other health benefits, but much of it goes back to the same places it's getting cut from: hospitals and drug companies. They were willing to bet that they would do OK taking lower Medicare payments if they wouldn't have to provide free care to so many uninsured people anymore.

I might also add that the health law boosted some Medicare benefits, principally for preventive care and prescription drug coverage.

CORNISH: Now, Congressman Ryan also talked about his own plan today.

ROVNER: That's right. It would convert Medicare, at least for future retirees, into a program where private plans would compete against each other and in theory hold prices down. Here's part of how he described it.

RYAN: Our plan empowers future seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them from a list of plans that are required to offer at least the same level of benefits as traditional Medicare.

CORNISH: All right, Julie, is that an accurate description?

ROVNER: Well, it's his plan so I presume that's what he intends. He hasn't offered a whole lot of details. But what he doesn't say is that what Medicare will pay for those plans won't continue to rise as fast as the cost of medical inflation. So if you're a Medicare beneficiary and you want to continue to receive that same level of benefits as traditional Medicare, you'll most likely have to pay more money out of your own pocket.

At least that's what the Congressional Budget Office predicts, and that is what's made it so controversial, and that's why for Congressman Ryan speaking to the AARP was kind of like walking into the lion's den. It's not something that's very popular with that demographic, although he's selling it as hard as he can.

CORNISH: Julie, thank you.

ROVNER: You're very welcome.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Julie Rovner for our new series In Context, talking about statements made today by President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan to the AARP convention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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