- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

As Congress inches closer to drafting legislation intended to overhaul the nation’s health care system, liberal groups - determined not to repeat the mistakes of

a similar attempt by the Clinton administration in 1993 - are becoming more aggressive in their push for universal medical coverage.

The group Health Care for America Now (HCAN) began airing TV attack advertisements this month calling Rick Scott, a leading opponent of the health care reform movement, a fraud, cheat and a liar.

Liberal groups also are teaming with the health care industry to form coalitions unthinkable a few years ago to push for universal coverage.

And with the Senate expected to complete its health care reform package by late June, the public relations war isn’t expected to quell any time soon - or get less personal.

“I expect the ads to increase in frequency and pointedness, because there are a lot of financial interests at stake,” said Bud Jackson, an Alexandria-based media consultant and Democratic strategist. “When you get closer to the rubber meeting the road in health care as it becomes debated more in Congress, we’ll see more specific ads and more contentious ads.”

HCAN, a broad coalition of labor unions and liberal advocacy groups, has been waging an ad campaign for months to promote its agenda of affordable and universal health care. Its latest target is Mr. Scott, who made a fortune running the former Columbia Hospital Corp.

Mr. Scott’s group Conservatives for Patients’ Rights (CPR) has been pushing back at Democratic health care proposals in a television and radio ad campaign this month using testimony from Canadians and British citizens decrying their country’s nationalized health care systems.

“A system like England or Canada, where national boards make your health care decisions, and waiting lists reign supreme - that’s what some in Washington mean by reform,” says Mr. Scott in a recent radio ad.

Mr. Scott, who says health care is best served by private industry and not governments, said he plans to spend $15 billion to $20 billion this year to fight the Obama administration’s health care agenda.

HCAN hit back at Mr. Scott with TV ads airing in Washington and his home of Naples, Fla., attacking his credibility - highlighting his 1997 ouster as head of the Columbia Hospital Corp. by its board of directors in the midst of a massive Medicare and Medicare fraud scandal. Four years later the company reached a plea agreement with the U.S. government that eventually led to it paying more than $1.7 billion in fines, back payments and lawsuit settlements.

“Now Rick Scott is trying to block health care reform because he and his insurance company friends make millions from the broken system we have now,” declares the HCAN ad. “Before you listen to Rick Scott, look at his record.”

Mr. Scott is the perfect anti-reform boogeyman for the left, many health care advocates say.

“Rick Scott sticks out like a sore thumb, and most of us who support health care reform are delighted he’s the source of the anti-reform movement because he lacks credibility,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of health care advocacy group Families USA. “It seems like Rick Scott is a side circus.”

Mr. Scott declined to specifically comment on the HCAN campaign, telling The Washington Times that “unfortunately they’re trying to shoot the messenger - they’re not addressing the issues.”

He added that despite the attack he doesn’t think the health care debate would degenerate into mudslinging.

“The goal is just to have a good debate, and I think we will have that in the end,” he said.

HCAN isn’t the only entity hitting the airwaves in support of health care reform. A new coalition called Healthy Economy Now, which includes such diverse groups as the pharmaceutical lobby, Families USA, AARP, Blue Cross and Blue Shield medical insurance, and the American Medical Association, among others, also are running TV ads in support of health care reform.

The cooperation between the political right and left is in stark contrast to 16 years ago, when big business and trade groups ran an aggressive and well-funded public relations campaign against President Clinton’s proposed health care reform that included the now legendary “Harry and Louise” TV ad. 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.

“This is a very different context (compared with 1993) which makes it a lot more likely that health care reform will happen this year,” Mr. Pollack said.

Many on the left say they don’t expect the anti-reform movement to gain steam this time because the business community has come to realize the current health care system is not working and is too costly. They add that the Obama administration has further defused potential dissent by reaching out to business and health care trade associations that previously were hostile to reform.

“I don’t expect there to be too much outside of Rick Scott coming with advertising that’s really knocking reform,” Service Employees International Union spokeswoman Lori Lodes said. “There might have been some denial as to the extent of how much in crisis our health care system was in 1993, where now, everybody gets it.”

General Electric Co. launched a public relations campaign this month to promote its pledge to invest $6 billion during the next six years to help lower health care costs and improve the quality of medical care in under-served regions of the United States and abroad.

But with GE a major player in medical information technology, the company stands to substantially profit from a push by the administration and Congress to modernize the nation’s medical records systems.

Yet until Congress makes public its plans to overhaul health care, it’s too early to tell whether the left’s push for reform will succeed.

“We’re in the infancy of the process,” Mr. Jackson said. “You can’t really gauge effectiveness when you don’t know what the goals are yet.”

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