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Health Care Ads Could Pick Up After the Break

The intensifying health care debate is following Members of Congress home to their districts during this week’s recess. A long list of industry and interest groups have taken out advertising spots, are activating grass-roots networks and are planning Member meetings outside the Beltway.

Meanwhile, back inside the Capitol complex, lobbyists and Congressional aides say the week will be filled with important industry and staff-level negotiations that could help shape some of the most controversial aspects of reform.

Several major industry stakeholders, however, will be noticeably absent from the advertising airwaves over the July Fourth recess. Though they will continue to keep in touch with Members through meetings and grass roots, AARP, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the Federation of American Hospitals and AdvaMed all say they are sitting out this recess when it comes to advertising campaigns.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America will be running positive ads touting health care reform.

The groups have been holding their fire in response to threats from the staff of Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and White House aides, who have warned that any groups that run ads attacking reform efforts before the bills have been crafted would lose their seats at the bargaining table.

But health care industry insiders and issue-advertising executives say they expect the advocacy ad floodgates to open shortly.

“From here on out, will you be seeing a lot more advertising on the health care front? The answer is yes,” said Mark Goodin of Single Malt Media, a Fairfax, Va.-based film production and issue advocacy firm. “You’re going to see a flow of advertising from here until the final stretch of Congress that will be a flood tide.”

One advertising strategist said that even though interest groups are cognizant of Baucus’ threats, “I don’t think that’s going to stop people” running ads.

Another advertising consultant said it’s just a matter of time before organizations start jumping ship.

“When doctors and hospitals have to confront the possibility of less reimbursements in Medicare, I think that’s when the wheels start coming off the wagon,” this consultant said.

Before that, groups are working in a lower-profile way to get their messages across to Members.

Steve Ubl, CEO of AdvaMed, said his group is eschewing any recess advertising but is doing in-district meetings with Members who sit on the committees of jurisdiction. The group has also started to activate its grass-roots network of more than 350,000 employees nationwide.

“Now that we have a sense of where each of the committees are going on our priority issues, we can direct our grass roots more effectively,” Ubl said, noting that his organization supports the general framework on comparative effectiveness research that Baucus backs.

But his group opposes a measure in the House bill that would allow for different laws in all 50 states on physician payment disclosure. AdvaMed supports federal preemption on that issue.

“We’re going to be consulting with other stakeholders in the process, like the hospitals,” Ubl said. “Whatever happens in the hospital negotiations around reductions will have a significant impact on us. The hospitals buy our products, and if they’re asked to absorb reductions, that will affect us.”

The health insurance companies also have begun energizing their grass roots.

“We have really ramped up our efforts to engage the health plan community,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for AHIP, which will be involved in more than 75 town-hall and other events across the country this week. “We are encouraging health plan employees from across the country to get involved, reach out to their Member of Congress, talk about what they do and the value they’re adding to the health care system.”

PhRMA, too, will participate in events, including its Partnership for Prescription Assistance bus stops in North and South Dakota and a press event in Seattle today, said PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson, who added that PhRMA “has not spent a penny this year on any attack ads.”

AARP is focusing on its ground game as well, with district office visits and town-hall meetings, including one with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Thursday and stops in the district of Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

AARP will start advertising in support of generic biologics after the recess ends and Members return to Capitol Hill.

Mark Merritt, CEO of PCMA, said his group is continuing a recently launched advertising campaign on generic, or follow-on, biologics. The spots tout the cost savings to finding a path to generic versions of costly biotech therapies.

The PCMA ads, he noted, do not attack the overall plan. “This is saying, ‘Let’s do the right kind of biogenerics,’” he said. “What we’re trying to do is help shape health reform.”

The Coalition for a Competitive Pharmaceutical Market, of which PCMA is a member, is targeting Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Democrats with ads in hometown newspapers and radio.

The issue of how to deal with follow-on biologics is one of the top remaining points — along with an employer mandate and a public plan — that has not yet been hashed out.

The coalition on Friday was still honing its recess media strategy, which will also include a grass-roots component. “We’re just trying to make sure that people understand if [the Biotechnology Industry Organization] is going to run an eight-page insert, we’re at least going to run an ad,” said the coalition’s director, Katie Hubbard.

Post-recess, Hubbard said, the coalition will do a combination of earned media and ad buys in key states and inside the Beltway.

And it’s not just health care groups such as the AMA that are waiting for the bill.

Several non-medical industries, including commodities groups and alcoholic beverage companies, which could face a hefty tax increase to help pay for the bill, are expected to advertise against the bill if they are targeted. “They’ve agreed they aren’t going to be out there talking smack about the Obama health care reform until there’s actually something formally introduced,” said one consultant who does issue advocacy.

“Once there are details on the street, every one of these companies and associations are going to be in a mad rush to go out and find a firm if they don’t have one and develop a campaign in 48 hours.”

The union-affiliated coalition Health Care for America Now is spending $1.1 million on television ads during this week’s recess, airing spots that encourage voters to press lawmakers to include a public plan in a health care overhaul package.

The ads will air in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

“We’re asking Senators to support the President’s plan to cover everyone, lower costs, and provide the choice of health care plans, including a public health insurance option,” Richard Kirsch, a campaign manager for the coalition, said in a statement.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also may run television ads on health care during the recess. AFSCME lobbyist Chuck Loveless said that the union was still mulling it over as of press time.

But if the group does run ads, Loveless said, it will focus on two issues: support for a public plan and bashing the proposed taxation of employer-provided insurance. Union bosses are becoming increasingly concerned that their employees’ insurance plans will be taxed to offset the proposed plan.

AFSCME has already run television ads in Oregon opposing the proposed tax. Loveless also said that the union is planning “extensive grass-roots activities” this week.

The Service Employees International Union, too, is planning a grass-roots campaign this week. SEIU is planning events in Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. In the Keystone State, SEIU will host events in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Scranton and Media.

Business groups appear to be holding their fire for now. National Association of Manufacturers spokesman Hank Cox confirmed that his organization is not planning to run ads during the July Fourth recess, saying broadcast media is “not our first choice” in opposing the bill.

Instead, his group will use the break to educate its members about the consequences of the current policy proposals.

Still, depending on the bill’s final language, Cox said, it’s conceivable that his group will shell out for television spots.

And he was not alone. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue also said his group will not stand by idly if its members disapprove of the ultimate legislation.

“If we decided what was in that bill had to be defeated — which we’re not there at all — we’d do whatever we have to do to beat it,” Donohue said. “I’m still working on getting a workable bill.”

Anna Palmer and Matthew Murray contributed to this report.

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