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Senior Groups Reject Health Care 'Scare Tactics'

At high noon on one of the hottest days of the summer, a small group of senior citizens sweated it out in front of state GOP headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., asking the Republican Party to stop using what they called "scare tactics" to turn senior citizens against overhauling the health care system. It could be the start of a silver backlash against what some say is a misinformation campaign about health care reform.

The members of the Alliance for Retired Americans were angry about a recent column by national GOP Chairman Michael Steele, who said health care reform would lead to rationing for the elderly and deep cuts to Medicare. Protester Michael Gravinese says that's not true — and he thinks Steele is trying to frighten seniors like him

"It's pretty blatant and obvious what they're doing," Gravinese says. "And that's not for the good of the country. Let's have a reasoned, honest debate about health care."

Gravinese isn't the only one who thinks his gray hair makes him a target for misinformation. The AARP does, too. The group is spending millions on an information campaign to counter what spokesman Jordan McNerney also calls scare tactics. He says from a political point of view, targeting seniors makes sense.

"Older Americans vote more than any other voting group, especially in midterm elections, so they're an influential group," McNerney says. "Especially for folks in Medicare, when you tell them that things are changing, they get pretty concerned."

AARP is nonpartisan and hasn't endorsed any overhaul proposal. But it is backing some key provisions to strengthen Medicare. McNerney says a majority of members supported a health care overhaul during the last year, though polls show that support is dwindling.

"I think in recent weeks we've seen that the scare tactics do work in a lot of cases. It's a lot easier to scare people than it is to educate them and get the facts to them."

That's where Brooks Jackson comes in. He's the director of at the Annenberg School of Public Policy. He says when health care was debated in the 90s, most of the misinformation came from industry opponents, like drug and insurance companies. But not this time.

"The attacks are coming from ideological groups and individuals who are really responsible to no one but their donors," he says. "I think there is something of an incentive here for them to make as inflammatory a claim as they can manage, regardless of what the facts are, because it helps keep the donations flowing."

Jackson points out that both parties have a long history of stretching the truth when it comes to health care. He says while the Republican Party itself didn't come up with "death panels," it has been spreading some misinformation.

Senior citizen Betty Zimmerman says she's trying to fight back. She spends a lot of time talking — to friends, neighbors, anyone who'll listen to her — about what is and is not in the health care proposals.

"You know the word goes from one to another," she says. "As senior citizens, those of us that are active just need to tell the people what's going on."

Whether many senior citizens will do just that will likely play out in the coming weeks.

Laura Leslie reports for North Carolina Public Radio.

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