On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went on the Senate floor to call out the Obama administration for using a federal agency to squelch mailings by health insurance company Humana, warning customers of proposed cuts to the Medicare Advantage program under Democratic health care reform proposals.
But the Times' print edition skipped the Humana speech suppression completely, contenting itself with a story on the paper's health care blog "Prescriptions." A health care story considered more newsworthy: A profile of comedian Will Ferrell's parody ad defending health insurance executives, generously headlined "Adding Humor to Debate."
The Times finally brought up the controversy in print on Thursday, working it into three paragraphs near the end of Robert Pear's front-page profile of Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, "Senator Tries to Allay Fears on Health Overhaul ." Even then, the Times emphasized excuses for the Democrats' behavior, sandwiching Sen. McConnell's free speech complaint between an explanation from administration officials and an attack on Humana by a Democratic senator.
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida desperately wants to expand health insurance coverage because one in five Floridians is uninsured. As a former state insurance commissioner, he wants to crack down on insurers. And as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he can shape legislation to achieve both goals.
But Mr. Nelson, a Democrat, has a big problem. The bill taken up this week by the committee would cut Medicare payments to insurance companies that care for more than 10 million older Americans, including nearly one million in Florida. The program, known as Medicare Advantage, is popular because it offers extra benefits, including vision and dental care and even, in some cases, membership in health clubs or fitness centers.
Mr. Nelson said he had received 56,000 telephone calls, letters and e-mail messages on the legislation since June.
Some of those callers have been mobilized by insurance companies.
Humana, one of the nation's largest insurers, has urged subscribers to contact their members of Congress and register their opposition to the cuts. "Millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable," Humana said in a recent letter to beneficiaries.
On Monday, the Obama administration told Humana to "end immediately all such mailings to beneficiaries." It said the materials were "misleading and confusing." Insurers have contracts with Medicare, and under Medicare rules, many of their communications with beneficiaries need to be submitted to the government for review, administration officials said.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the administration was trying to "squelch free speech" by Humana, which is based in Louisville. But Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, said Humana had "scared a lot of seniors unnecessarily."