Chamber to Hit Public Plan Hard

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week stepped up its advertising and lobbying efforts to combat a government-run public health plan option favored by most Democrats crafting health care reform.

The big-business group announced Tuesday that it was launching a print and online advertising campaign — worth more than $2 million — in five states and that it was stepping up its grass-roots and political organizing to beat back attempts to include the public plan option in health care reform. The five states are Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine and North Carolina.

The chamber’s top lobbyist, Bruce Josten, said those states were selected to help provide cover to Members of Congress who have raised questions with the public plan. “We believe that those Members of Congress who have questioned those issues are exactly doing the kind of thing that elected officials should be doing,— Josten said, “while they continue to work toward a comprehensive approach for health care reform and a bipartisan approach for health care reform.—

The ad’s message, Josten said, is, “Don’t drag down health care reform,— and it will be just the first in the chamber’s effort.

“This is ad No. 1,— he said. “More to come.—

The chamber’s message definitely won’t go unanswered by the other side.

On Tuesday, Democratic consultant James Carville sent out an e-mail to supporters of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asking for small-dollar contributions to help pay for advertising and messaging in support of the president’s health care reform ideas for the Emergency Health Care Rapid Response Fund.

“You know the Republican attacks on President Obama’s health care plan must be pretty vicious when even Harry and Louise from those infamous TV ads way back when decide to switch sides,— said the Carville e-mail, noting that the insurance industry advertising icons Harry and Louise are now doing ads in favor of health care reform. “From launching attack ads on television, creating ridiculous attack web sites and using every single lie from the Karl Rove playbook, Republicans and their fat-cat CEO friends are doing everything they can to try and derail President Obama’s plan to make health care more affordable for everyone.—

Josten said the chamber and its member companies aren’t trying to derail reforms and actually want a bill.

“We’re paying too much and not getting a fair return on our dollar,— Josten said during a conference call with reporters.

But the chamber believes a public plan will have an unfair advantage and could then crowd out private plans. That will simply shift costs, he said, and “that will ultimately make health care costs higher.—

The chamber supports reforms to the private insurance market as well as new health care technologies, electronic medical records and wellness programs. The chamber, which opposes employer-mandated health care, favors a plan that would make it mandatory for individuals to carry health insurance. Josten also said that even though the chamber opposes the employer mandate, it views the employer-sponsored health insurance system as the foundation for coverage in the country.

Chamber of Commerce Political Director Bill Miller said that in addition to the advertising campaign, the group was mobilizing its grass roots in those same five states. “This is about information, education and then motivation,— Miller said, noting that the effort will continue during the August recess.

The health insurance industry, under increasing attack from Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, came out this week with its first national TV advertising campaign, a largely positive message, since the last round of health care reform in the 1990s when it ran attack ads.

America’s Health Insurance Plans intends to run additional ads. Depending on where the health care reform debate goes, new ads could go increasingly negative, according to two sources in the industry.

AHIP also is relying on rapid-response, 24-hour messaging on its blog and on Twitter to respond to negative reports about its industry.

And the group’s president and CEO, Karen Ignagni, reiterated her industry’s opposition to the public plan and noted its contributions to reforms thus far. “Our community has proposed guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, discontinuing rating based on a person’s health status or gender, and a personal coverage requirement to get everyone into the system,— she said in a statement Tuesday. “We have proposed far-reaching administrative reforms to slash paperwork, reduce medical errors, and ensure doctors and hospitals can focus on patient care. A government-run plan is a roadblock to reform.—

But health care lobbyists say the chamber, more than any one individual industry group, is being looked at to take the lead in voicing concerns over reform proposals.

“The chamber really has been good about being a leading force in organizing the various voices who have grave concerns about the public plan,— said one health care consultant who is not affiliated with the chamber. “They’ve done a spectacular job. It’s an important voice. The business voice behind all this is probably a voice that is most listened to.—

This consultant added that it’s not just corporate interests that like what the chamber is doing. “Members appreciate that people are finally starting to speak out about concerns with these really massive and important issues,— the consultant said.

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