Lawmakers Look for Cover Downtown

Posted June 15, 2007 at 6:16pm

Senior House Democrats are turning to K Street to help them sell an ambitious expansion of children’s health insurance.

It is a textbook, if rarely seen, example of Congressional operatives turning the tables on lobbyists — Democratic leaders pressuring downtown interests to provide them air cover for their plan.

The campaign still is in its formative stages, but the majority party already has sought funding from a broad cross-section of downtown groups, including those representing drug companies, doctors, hospitals, labor unions and patients.

They want the lobbying organizations to fund a multimillion-dollar media blitz for the widely popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Set to expire Sept. 30, Democrats are pushing to extend and enlarge the program.

But doing so will cost at least $50 billion, and could be attached to other spending priorities that will raise the price tag to as much as $100 billion. To foot the bill, Democrats are eyeing a tobacco tax and cuts to Medicare Advantage, another popular health insurance program — both moves that could anger members of their own party from rural and minority-heavy districts.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Families USA are expected to take the lead in the effort by forming a 501(c)(4) organization that will serve as a clearinghouse for its funding.

Officials with the groups said it is too early to discuss specifics.

“For this to be successful, it has to be more than just PhRMA. That’s why we’re exploring partnering with other groups,” said Ken Johnson, the drug company association’s senior vice president for communications.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, indicated whatever form the campaign takes, its objective will be to overwhelm any opposition to the plan that springs up from sources asked to pay for it.

Earlier this month, staffers for the Democratic leadership and the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means panels gathered groups united behind the emerging SCHIP legislation to pitch the campaign. Spokesmen for both committees could not be reached for comment.

“The pitch is: ‘We need help on SCHIP, and please help us,’” said Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, whose group was represented at the meeting but who did not personally attend. “A number of us are interested in helping, but I would define it as still very much in the talking stage.”

Many of the groups asked to support the campaign could see SCHIP funding come out of their own pockets if the combination of tobacco tax revenue and Medicare Advantage savings don’t cover the full cost of the reauthorization. That calculus went unmentioned — though not unnoticed — at the meeting, according to several in attendance.

“Everyone is nervous about becoming a pay-for, so we all know it’s in our best interest to help out,” said one lobbyist familiar with the discussions.

Groups on the chopping block already are mobilizing against the plan, suggesting the funds should come from anywhere but their own hides.

Tobacco companies are covering both sides of Capitol Hill with lobbyists to try to sink any new tax on their products.

And insurers are trying to forestall cuts to Medicare Advantage, an insurance benefit for retirees not covered by Medicaid but unable to afford their own supplemental coverage.

“One shouldn’t be juxtaposed against the other,” Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said of the plan to link SCHIP funding to Medicare Advantage cuts. “It’s a false choice. Members of Congress should focus on preserving both,” she said.

If the campaign Democratic leaders are asking for is going to happen it needs to happen soon. Though details remain fluid, both chambers are moving ahead with their plans. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said he wants to mark-up a bill by the end of the month, and lobbyists close to the process said Ways and Means subcommittee on health Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is on a similar timeline.

Democratic leaders on either side of the Capitol are eager to wrap up a deal on the program to notch a major accomplishment on the health care front, which polls show Americans regularly rank among their top concerns.

Pollack said while there are “a number of things that still need to be worked through” before any campaign gets off the ground, “they will be worked through quickly.”

A target budget for the campaign has yet to be worked out, since it is not yet clear how widely its backers will need to air advertisements, according to sources close to discussions. Likewise, sources with groups likely to contribute said House Democratic staffers have not named specific amounts they would like each group to contribute. Several said they were considering what an appropriate level of support would be.

Meanwhile, many of the likely backers are already shelling out for ads and activating their grass roots in support of SCHIP, either on their own or in loose affiliation with others.

PhRMA, for example, launched a national cable television ad campaign on May 21, and has been running ads inside the Beltway in political press and on local TV affiliates. Johnson said PhRMA would continue to buy ads in its own name, regardless of how it participates with the new group.

Added Kahn: “A campaign needs air cover, and it helps, but grass roots is crucial.”