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Health Care Ads Hitting Fever Pitch

For many Americans it may be impossible to turn on the television in the coming days and not be bombarded with health care drama. And we are not talking about “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House M.D.”

A slew of interest groups lobbying on the health care overhaul is cranking up the volume of advertising spots and grass-roots organizing this week as Congressional leaders race to put the finishing touches on controversial legislation to remake the nation’s medical system.

“As the little girl said in ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘They’re baaack,’” said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advocacy advertising. Tracey said groups ran more than $200 million worth of health-care-related advocacy ads last year — the largest advocacy ad campaign ever for one issue.

But there was a steep drop in these spots after the election of Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown in January, which deprived Democrats of a supermajority in the Senate and put health care reform on life support.

But now Congressional leaders are back on track with a plan to vote on a health care reform package that avoids the need for a Senate supermajority by using budget reconciliation procedures.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday that she aims to see the House approve the health care package this week. The White House set Thursday as its latest deadline for passing the bill, although that has since slipped.

Advocacy groups and professional associations, many with conservative ties that oppose the legislation, have taken the mid-March deadline as a cue to ratchet up their activity.

Honk Against Reform

Conservative groups also are rallying their troops on the ground with events in Washington, D.C., and Congressional districts.

The tea party movement, which was partly responsible for the raucous protests at town hall meetings last August, is organizing an event at the Capitol on Tuesday, which will include a rally and feature speakers such as GOP firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

Amy Kremer, Tea Party Express spokeswoman, said the idea to stage the rally and subsequent lobbying of lawmakers was “spur of the moment” and prompted by Obama’s mid-March deadline for passage.

Americans for Prosperity is also trying to exert pressure on lawmakers by urging their constituents to hold noisy demonstrations at noon Tuesday at their district offices. In what it is calling “Honk Against the Health Care Takeover Rally,” the advocacy group is asking opponents “to drive to your nearest Congressional district office and drive around honking your horn.”

Last week, the U.S Chamber of Commerce and other business groups announced that they would underwrite $4 million to $10 million in advertising opposing the Democratic health care plan. America’s Health Insurance Plans is also spearheading a $1 million ad campaign that criticizes the current health care bills for not doing enough to control costs.

Other lesser-known ideological groups are also running spots aimed at swaying moderate and conservative Democratic Senators and House Members.

One such conservative group, the League of American Voters, is running anti-health-care-overhaul ads in House districts, targeting vulnerable Democrats whom the organization’s executive director, Bob Adams, described as “persuadable one way or the other.”

“They haven’t thrown in the towel. So that tells me: better run more ads,” said Adams, who has worked for a number of Republicans, including former Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) and one-time presidential contender Patrick Buchanan.

Adams said he plans to run about $700,000 in ads over the next couple of weeks. He said many of the ads will run in rural districts where advertising is cheaper.

Even if Congress finishes the job on health care reform legislation, that won’t stop the ads. Adams said his group would continue after the Congressional deliberations to remind the public how their Members voted.

Adams said his group’s funding came from many small donations and was not underwritten by any particular industry such as insurance companies.

The group’s Web site includes a fundraising appeal by former Clinton adviser and conservative columnist Dick Morris, who asks for $5 million in donations to air ads in 40 districts represented by Democrats but which GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won.

It is difficult to get a complete handle on how much groups are paying for ads and rallies because most groups are not required to report spending on grass-roots activities, explained Craig Holman of Public Citizen. Nevertheless, Holman said he suspects these groups spend as much, if not more, on these kinds of activities as they do on conventional lobbying of lawmakers, which they must publicly disclose. A number of registered lobbying groups such as the chamber do include ad spending in their quarterly lobbying filings with Congress. But many of the smaller groups are not even registered lobbyists.

While the advocacy ads and grass-roots events may reach a crescendo this week, Tracey predicted the media campaign over health care will continue through the November Congressional elections.

“This election becomes a referendum on health care,” he said.

Micro-Targeting

With so many ads running, some groups are looking for ways to appeal to different segments of the population, such as women.

For example, Americans for Prosperity is running a television spot that features a breast cancer survivor, Tracy Walsh of South Carolina, who brings up a government advisory panel recommendation last November that women delay getting a mammogram until age 50. Walsh says that if she followed government guidelines, “my chances of survival would have been reduced.”

“What are your odds if the government takes over your health care?” Walsh asks in the ad. “We need to start over and get your health care right.”

The $750,000 ad buy is running in 18 Congressional districts, including those of a number of vulnerable Democrats, such as Reps. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Nick Rahall (W.Va.), and Christopher Carney (Pa.).

Last December, Senate Democrats responded to Republican uproar over the task force’s recommendation by approving an amendment to the health care bill that would ensure that women have access to mammograms.

To bolster Democrats who are under fire, the Service Employees International Union is planning to be on the air this week with ads supporting health care reform in targeted districts.

However, the union-backed Health Care for America Now, which ran millions of dollars worth of advertising last year, is taking a lower profile on the airwaves.

HCAN did run a three-day $70,000 cable buy last week that attacked insurance companies. It also organized a boisterous rally outside the AHIP meeting at the Ritz-Carlton last week.

But HCAN spokeswoman Jacki Schechner said the group does not have a major ad campaign planned. HCAN’s efforts will largely be focused on “talking to Members,” she added.

Asked whether the retrenchment was due to financial constraints or the belief that television and radio was not an effective lobbying strategy in the health care endgame, Schechner said, “a little bit of both.”

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