Harry and Louise, part II
New TV ads attack Obama health-care reforms
Fifteen years ago, health-insurance companies bankrolled a television ad campaign called “Harry and Louise,” featuring a middle-aged, middle-class couple. This everycouple lamented the loss of their old health-care plan while an ominous voice warned, “The government may force us to pick from a few health plans designed by government bureaucrats.” The campaign became legendary for derailing Hillary Clinton’s speeding train of health-care reform in simple, devastating fashion.
It’s déjà vu, and the “government bureaucrats” must be at it again, because a new series of commercials is circling the country, this time sponsored by a health-care executive ousted by his own board of directors for bilking the government out of millions of dollars.
The new TV ads, sponsored by Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, are relatively simple in tone. A “four pillars” ad asks for a choice of doctors, clear pricing and performance information, tax breaks for ordinary citizens equal to those given employers, and rewards for staying healthy.
On the surface, “it’s pretty mom and apple pie,” admits Marjorie Ginsburg, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Healthcare Decisions in Rancho Cordova. Ginsburg runs focus groups on health-care choices called CHAT—Choosing Healthplans All Together—and says health-care options are wildly complex and poorly explained in 30-second bites. “No one is going to argue with those four principles as written,” she says. “It’s how they are applied that starts to get sticky.”
And sticky they get. A second TV ad lambastes the coming Obama-esque health-care reform as socialized medicine imported from foreign soil. Two doctors from Canada and Great Britain lament long waiting lists and the lack of personal choice.
Anthony Wright guffaws audibly when he watches the commercial online. “Their basic critique is impressively deceptive,” says Wright, executive director of Health Access California. He says the Obama plan would increase choices and retain existing coverage while providing additional benefits. Not to mention universal health care.
The highly controversial brainchild of the ads and head of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights is Richard Scott, former chief executive officer of the powerful, for-profit Columbia/HCA. After building Columbia/HCA into the largest health-care organization in the world, Scott was forced to resign in 1997 during an FBI investigation for Medicare fraud that produced 14 felony convictions and $1.7 billion in criminal and civil penalties.
“Many are curious about why he would be the spokesperson against health reform given his checkered background,” says Wright. “His example is that we need more oversight in the health-care system, not less.”
“It’s nothing more than fearmongering,” agrees Peter Harbage, senior fellow for the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington, D.C. “They want people to think that the government is going to take over health care, and it’s not true. … He’s trying to convince people we can’t do any better than [what we have], even though we have skyrocketing costs and 50 million uninsured.”
Sen. Christopher Dodd, senior member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has frequently said that any new reforms will be uniquely American. “It’s not a Canadian plan or a British plan or anyone else’s plan,” he’s said. “We want to give people options so we can have the kind of diversity that people demand.”
Some suggest that the TV ads sport a hidden agenda: to drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans who have so far enjoyed surprising bipartisan cooperation over health care. Indeed, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights was seeded with $5 million from Scott himself. He says he plans to raise another $15 million in small donations.
Speaking before a conference of health-care journalists last month, Sen. Ron Wyden said that drafting the Healthy Americans Act was the first time in history that opposing senators supported universal health coverage with such fervor: seven Democrats, six Republicans and one independent co-sponsored the bill. Reintroduced to Congress in February, the act promotes health coverage equal to that enjoyed by members of Congress.
Yet Igor Volsky thinks the commercials are strongly divisive and sees them working. Volsky, who has blogged extensively about Scott’s past and his egregious misrepresentations of health-care reform, says there is a political message—and messenger—behind the ads. Conservatives, he says, fear that an Obama slam dunk on health care would ensure his re-election.
“If Obama is successful with health-care reform, he is virtually guaranteed victory” in 2012, says Volsky. “I think there’s pressure within the [Republican] party not to give [him] a victory.” Volsky, a health-care researcher at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, says the Republican message is penned by the same man who wordsmithed “global warming” into the more palatable “climate change”—Frank Luntz.
Luntz has now authored “The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Healthcare,” which provides talking points for Republicans like this: “The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around ‘politicians,’ ‘bureaucrats,’ and ‘Washington.’”
Armed with this document and the TV ads, Volsky says, “A lot of Republicans are moving towards obstructionism.”
But not all. In fact, there is ample evidence that Rick Scott has alienated members of his own party. The New York Times quotes one of the original members of the “Harry and Louise” advertising group, who suggests that times have changed and reform is not only essential but inevitable. And Monday, Obama announced that leading health industry trade groups—including some representing insurance companies, doctors and drug makers—have now pledged to help his effort to cut $2 trillion in health-care expenses in a decade.
“I just don’t understand why he would be a messenger people would listen to,” Charles N. Kahn III, told the Times. “I don’t think people are waiting to hear from him.”