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It's the most heated fight of the 2012 campaign season: are senior citizens in danger of losing Medicare benefits?

That allegation, the centerpiece of Republican candidate ads nationwide, is also the focus of the first salvo in the congressional race between incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, and Democratic challenger Jose Hernandez.

Here's the bottom line on the ad produced by Denham's team: the incumbent opposes the federal health care reform implemented by Democrats and President Barack Obama. His challenger supports it.

"Jose Hernandez wants to cut $716 billion from Medicare," says the narrator of the Denham ad now on the airwaves. "And Hernandez would raise taxes on the medical devices seniors use."

To understand these accusations, it's important to step back and dive into the rules and ramifications of the federalPatient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The charge of Hernandez -- or any Democrat -- supporting a "cut" to Medicare is textbook political spin. While it's true that thefederal health care law makes changes that would decrease Medicare spending over the next nine years, it's simply a decrease in the rate of spending growth, and not an actual cut.

(Interestingly enough, that's the same criticism that Republicans in the California Legislature have made of Democrats for the last few years -- namely, that decisions Democrats counted as spending cuts were so small as to still allow for year over year increases in expenditures.)

The $716-billion dollar figure is, in fact, accurate. In July, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (PDF) calculated that as the cost of Republican efforts to repeal the so-called 'Obamacare' law.

As other fact-checking news organizations have pointed out, the law says that the largest slow-down in Medicare spending will be for government payments to hospitals and payments to private insurance companies as part of a former Bush administration program.

Democrats argue that will create new efficiencies, which admittedly may or may not turn out to be true. But the law does not say less money will be spent on Medicare patients.

As for the Denham ad's assertion that Hernandez would raise taxes on the medical devices used by seniors, again it comes with a generous dose of political spin.

The answer is back inside the voluminous federal health care law. While it does impose a new 2.3 percent tax on medical devices, it's an excise tax on the companies that make certain medical devices -- not on the seniors that use them.

The list of devices that will be taxed may, or may not include the wheelchairs mentioned in Rep. Denham's ad. The IRS is tasked with developing the list before the federal health care law takes effect next year.

And the assertion that any Democrat who wasn't in office for the passage of the Obama administration's signature law would be responsible for "raising taxes" seems off base. After all, the law takes effect even if Hernandez wins his 10th congressional district race and does nothing. Only a presidential victory by GOP nominee Mitt Romney, and a big win for his party in Congress, would result in changes... with Romney vowing to repeal most of the law.

By the way, a word about the newspaper citations that the Denham ad uses in tiny print on the screen. Only one citation is for a story mentioning Jose Hernandez by name, and even then it's not a comment related to the Medicare spending changes. The other three are all national health care stories, with two of the stories actually pointing out that Republicans are misleading in their accusations about what the law would do.

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