- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

Who can be against affordable, quality health care? Want easy access to the doctor of your choice? Who doesn’t? And who can say no to better innovations in medicine and medical devices?

Get used to these rhetorical queries. As the health care reform debate cranks up in the coming months, advocacy groups will spend millions of advertising dollars waging a public relations war of words to try to sway the American public - as well as Capitol Hill and the White House.

At stake is a multibillion-dollar industry poised for an unprecedented overhaul at the hands of President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.

“Clearly, any change in health care policy will impact each of us … so our plan is to make sure the American public knows what’s going on,” said Richard L. Scott, chairman of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, which on Tuesday launched its first multimedia ad buy in a yearlong campaign he said may cost him $20 million.

Mr. Scott, who made a fortune running the Columbia Hospital Corp. and who supports free-market principles in health care, said ad campaigns such as his play a pivotal role in helping influence the voting public.

“While Congress will be voting on this, and the president will sign a bill, I believe it’s the American public that will decide what the bill is going to have in it,” Mr. Scott said.

Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress have said they want to pass separate health care reform packages by summer’s end and deliver a final version to the president by his end-of-year deadline.

The health care reform debate took center stage Thursday, as Mr. Obama invited dozens of lawmakers, health care providers, insurers and other stakeholders to a four-hour White House health care summit.

Though there was ample talk of bipartisanship and plenty of praise for the president’s initiative in bringing varying groups involved in health care together to discuss the matter, the issue of government-run care was one of the major fault lines exposed during the day’s events.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who attended the summit, said his party colleagues “have serious concerns about the plan outlined in the president’s budget.”

“Taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize a bureaucratic takeover of health care,” he said.

But Mr. Obama tried to reassure those worried that he will bring “socialized” health care to the nation, saying that under his plan, “if somebody has insurance that they like, they should be able to keep that insurance. If they have a doctor that they like, they should be able to keep that doctor.” He added Americans would pay less for health care than they do now.

The debate is expected to be significantly more intense and expensive than the last big push at health care reform in 1993 by the Clinton administration.

What’s also clear is that liberal groups touting universal health care will be better organized, aggressive and well-funded this time around compared with 16 years ago, when the now legendary “Harry and Louise” TV ads attacked then-President Clinton’s proposed health care overhaul. The lobbying group Health Insurance Association of America, which ran the ads, spent $10 million on the campaign that was widely credited as playing a key role in killing the proposal.

“The [liberal] groups will be outspent again, but it won’t be as bad,” said Len Nichols, director of health policy at the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank.

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