Health Plans, Mayor Join Forces

Posted July 27, 2005 at 6:46pm

It’s not often that a national lobbying group takes to Washington, D.C.’s city hall to launch the next phase of a major campaign.

But America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents HMOs and other providers, teamed up with Mayor Anthony Williams and members of the D.C. Medical Society on Wednesday to announce a District-focused advertising campaign urging medical malpractice reform.

While the campaign specifically supports a local bill that Williams has proposed, it also strategically coincides with AHIP’s lobbying push on medical malpractice in the Senate. The House was expected to pass a broad med mal bill as soon as Wednesday night.

The event with the mayor, which began with announcements and questions about the current heat advisory, turned contentious as soon as medical malpractice came up and reporters saw the ads that will go on Metro buses and stations through September.

One ad features handcuffs with a headline that reads “Busted!” and claims “With the money D.C. residents will spend this year on the medical liability crisis, the District could hire 3,463 new police officers.”

The mayor and AHIP president Karen Ignagni acknowledged that the ads are provocative, but Williams said the point was not to mislead residents into thinking they will get more cops on the streets if they support medical liability reform but to put the costs in terms that people can understand.

AHIP’s statistics say that medical liability costs D.C. residents $250 million a year. But even with medical malpractice reform that money would not be added to the D.C. budget. (AHIP is mum for now about how much it is paying for the campaign.)

“It’s aggressive, but it’s acceptable to me,” Williams said when asked whether the ads were “slick and deceiving.”

After the event, Ignagni, whose group earlier this year launched an edgy, shark-themed campaign on the same issue, said “the campaign is designed to translate a very complicated public policy issue into human terms.”

Critics such as Andy Rosenberg — a lobbyist with the firm Ruder Finn who previously represented the Association of Trial Lawyers of America when he worked at the law firm Patton Boggs — assailed the ad campaign.

“The truth of the matter is while insurance companies are posting their biggest profits, they are looking to cut their liability, and that’s really what it comes down to,” said Rosenberg, a Virginia Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2004. “This is about bolstering insurance company profits. It’s not as though the insurance companies are going to take any money they might save and give it to the municipality to hire more police officers. It’s disingenuous.”

While the ads deal directly with the nation’s capital, Ignagni said they provide a backdrop for the group’s lobbying as the debate shifts from the House — where such measures are popular — to the Senate, where medical liability reform proponents do not have the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster.

In addition to the shark ads, AHIP and its predecessor group the American Association of Health Plans have been lobbying for medical malpractice reform since 2001. And all along, working below the federal level has been part of the tactic, though this is the first time the association has focused its effort in Congress’ backyard.

In 2002, the group pushed for laws in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, and during the 2004 presidential primaries turned its attention on Iowa and New Hampshire.

Carlton Carl, a spokesman for ATLA said the District, as well as the nation, needs insurance reforms not medical liability reform.

“Who’s ripping off whom? The insurance industry is ripping off doctors, homeowners … and what is the solution of the insurance industry? To penalize those who are the most severely harmed.”

In anticipation of the House vote, ATLA sponsored its own conference call for reporters with Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), who said that the idea of converting new medical malpractice laws into cheaper health care costs just doesn’t fly. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

The House bill calls for limits of $250,000 on non-economic damages and would also limit damages paid by drugmakers, medical-device manufacturers, HMOs and nursing homes. The mayor’s D.C. bill would broaden immunity for health care workers while doing volunteer medical work and establish limits for non-economic damages, among other things.

Monty Huggins, another participant in the ATLA call, said his wife died of a blood clot after taking the drug Vioxx, which has since been pulled from the market.

“I cannot understand why anyone would want to protect the pharmaceutical industry, which right now is trying to regather and regain trust with the public,” he said.

But a spokesman for PhRMA, Ken Johnson, said in a statement that the medical liability legislation strikes a balance between patients’ legal protections and the ability of drug researchers to “focus their time on the search for new medicines and not waste valuable resources defending against frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits.”

Carl added that ATLA, like its opponents, will be “very active” in the Senate “telling the truth about the corporate CEOs who are pushing this, the politicians who support them, and the real impact on real people.”

Dr. Bill Plested, a cardiovascular surgeon in Santa Monica, Calif., and president-elect of the American Medical Association, said his group plans to activate its grass-roots network over the August recess to make sure that Senators get the message at home in their states.

“What can we do to break the filibuster? All we can do is continue to tell the story of physicians and patients, the increasing number of patients who are going without access to very needed care,” he said. “Unfortunately we don’t have a ‘nuclear’ option.”