- 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.

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“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.

But Mr. Nichols added that the winning side wouldn’t necessarily be the one that spends the most money.

“I don’t think it’s really about spending - it’s about which arguments are going to resonate with the American people,” he said. “That’s why they pay those [public relations] firms beaucoup money.”

Tom Miller, a health care policy scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agreed, saying the debate won’t be won or lost by paid advertising.

“Spending [on all sides of the debate] is not going to be at the level of a presidential campaign,” Mr. Miller said. “Obviously, there are some resources being spent on one side of the equation, but it’s premature to put any numbers out.”

Mr. Miller also disputed claims that the “Harry and Louise” ads were a decisive factor in sinking the Clinton health care proposal, saying it was doomed weeks before the ads hit the airwaves.

With no plan yet unveiled to praise or criticize, most advertisements thus far have been generic, focusing mostly on the need for reform that covers as many Americans as possible without bankrupting federal coffers.

The current situation has led to a seemingly odd coalition representing such divergent health care stakeholders as the pharmaceutical industry, consumers and doctors, as well as an insurance company and health organizations. The partnership last month launched a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign to thank Congress for passing a children’s health insurance measure and to encourage lawmakers to work together to address further health care reform legislation.

Mr. Nichols said the coalition is understandable because all players in the debate have a common goal: fixing the nation’s broken health care system.

“Stakeholders realize that this system we’ve got probably is not sustainable,” he said. “If we do nothing, we’re going to have to cut the Medicare benefit package a lot or raise taxes a lot. Neither one of those is popular, and no politician wants to be in the party that’s in charge of telling the people that.”

Mr. Miller added that because no one wants to be left out of the debate, it makes sense for groups to pool their resources and work together while they await more details on a plan from Capitol Hill and the White House.

“I like to call them the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ survivors,” he said. “They feel like if they leave the prison yard [alone], it could get dangerous for them.”

“Right now, it’s more favorable and more worthwhile for these varying interests to say, ‘I want to make sure I don’t get slashed or harder hit than my other competitors, and maybe if I stay part of a team, it won’t be terrific, but I’ll pick up some extra business, and it could be worse.’ ”

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