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Roll Call

This Time, Health Care Advocates Have Edge

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Last year, protesters rallied against passage of the health care overhaul. But now that it’s law, advocates of the law say they can win the battle of public relations over opponents who hope for repeal.

For advocacy groups on both sides of the health care debate, the new year rings in a rerun of the past, as a contentious debate begins over Republican legislation to repeal the sweeping health care law.

But this time, liberal coalitions who spent much of last year on the defensive are confident they can win the public relations battle over repeal efforts. In a coordinated response with the White House and Congressional Democrats, liberal groups have a simple message: Repealing the Affordable Care Act will eliminate new benefits, such as filling the gap in Medicare’s drug subsidy for seniors.

“If you repeal it, are you going to ask folks to give their money back?” said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, which has been orchestrating efforts among unions, seniors groups and other liberal organizations.

The groups, which met Tuesday to plot strategy, have scheduled events around the country to oppose repeal and organize call-ins to House Members’ offices.

“We see this as a real opportunity to explain all the benefits and rights people will receive,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal health care advocacy organization.

These groups, some of whom last year were at odds with the administration and Congressional leaders over issues such as the public option, say they are more unified in their message.

“We’ve all come to terms with differences we’ve had over details,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO.

“I think you will see far more discipline about this,” Pollack said.

Still, opponents of the law will be rallying their members to pressure House Members to vote for the repeal. The House GOP leadership has scheduled the vote for Jan. 12.

“This is our No. 1 priority. We are going to go all-out,” said Dean Clancy, vice president of health care policy for FreedomWorks, the tea-party-affiliated group founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). His group, which sponsored several rallies last year opposing the health care measure, is considering a press event on Capitol Hill on the day of the vote.

The National Federation of Independent Business is also lobbying for repeal, sending action alerts to its members to call lawmakers.

“For our group, it is not symbolic. It is about the bottom line,” NFIB spokeswoman Stephanie Cathcart said. NFIB will include the repeal in its key votes for the session, she said.

Opposition to the health care law resonated with the group’s members in the recent midterm elections, Cathcart said, noting that 25 NFIB members were elected to Congress, including two Senators.

But it is highly unlikely that the repeal will be enacted. It would have to overcome steep opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate and a certain veto by President Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, Clancy said his group’s goal is to “drive up the vote totals” for repeal in the House, where support is strongest, to prod the Senate to consider the matter. Furthermore, conservatives contend the health care law will be a winning issue for them in the 2012 elections, so they want to get lawmakers on the record.

“This is a multiyear project,” Clancy said.

Conversely, liberal groups are lobbying to prevent too many Democrats from supporting the repeal.

“We don’t want this to be a blowout,” Samuel said. He said he doubts there will be too many defections; of the 34 Democrats who voted against the bill last year, only 13 are returning.

While ideological groups are ratcheting up their activities, other stakeholders, who spent millions of dollars lobbying on the multitude of arcane provisions in the legislation last year, have remained largely on the sidelines.

Instead, some are focusing on working with the federal agencies to shape rules implementing the laws. Others are awaiting the outcome of federal lawsuits that have challenged the law, particularly the mandate that all Americans buy health insurance.

“Most health care industry stakeholders are, for the moment, too engaged in trying to influence the process of implementation to spend any effort on repeal,” said Andy Rosenberg, a Democratic lobbyist and partner in Thorn Run Partners who represents health care clients.

Conspicuously quiet so far has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which last year spent more than any other group opposing the health care law. Blair Latoff, chamber spokeswoman, said the business organization does not have a paid media or grass-roots campaign planned around the repeal.

“We don’t have anything to announce at this moment,” Latoff said in an e-mail, “But I can tell you that the business community remains ardently opposed to the new health care law and will continue to work diligently to mitigate the negative impacts on job creation.”

Other groups are biding their time and are more likely to seize on health care as it becomes an election issue.

Crossroads GPS, a political group founded by former Bush adviser Karl Rove that was a major funder of Republican candidates in the last election, is one such conservative group holding its fire.

“Crossroads GPS has no plans on healthcare in the immediate short term, though it is likely we will be active later on, as the battle on healthcare will continue in the Senate well along into 2012,” spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in an e-mail.

Other medical stakeholders are steering clear of the repeal fight, which some view as a waste of time.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, which aggressively opposed a number of provisions in the health care plan last year, is taking a neutral position on the repeal effort, although spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said the industry still thinks changes need to be made in the health care law to minimize coverage disruption and cost increases.

Some prominent AHIP members have publicly opposed doing away with the law.

“I don’t think it’s in our society’s best interest to expend energy in repealing the law,” Cigna President David Cordani said in November at a Reuters health summit, just days after Republicans won control of the House and increased their numbers in the Senate.

Mark Bertolini, president of Aetna, also said during the summit that repealing the law would lead the industry to “a bad place.”

One health insurance official said the repeal was a largely symbolic political exercise.

“It is clearly not going anywhere,” the official said.

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