The Rose Garden: Obama, Foes Unleash Messages on Health

Posted May 29, 2009 at 5:36pm

The White House is opting for a “positive message— strategy on its health care overhaul, doing little so far to directly engage the emerging plan by conservatives to characterize President Barack Obama’s proposals as a path toward rationed care.

[IMGCAP(1)]With business groups mostly on the sidelines or working with Obama, some conservative opponents are seeking to drive down public support with visions of inadequate care in the hope that businesses will join the bandwagon against the plan.

White House aides describe “three pillars— of a message strategy that will be pounded out all summer: that Obama supports plans to lower costs, preserve choice in the system and expand coverage.

But while the White House stresses that health care reform will help curb

the deficit and expand coverage, moneyed opponents of Obama’s ideas appear to be opting for the argument that the new system will force people to go without needed services and medicines.

The main White House counter to this has been that people will be allowed to keep the care they have and that all will have “quality— care. But while the White House sticks to its principles for the legislation, its opponents are the ones defining the “quality— of care patients will receive and charging that the care they have now will be degraded.

One White House official said the administration is not concerned about this line of attack.

“Our sense is that we’re building a critical mass— in support of Obama’s goals, he said. “As long as we keep leaning forward on this, we’ll stay on track.—

One organization devoted to opposing the yet-unseen health bill, Patients United Now, has produced an ad in which a Canadian patient asserts she would be dead if she had relied on her country’s health system, which is likened in the ad to what Obama wants.

“As my brain tumor got worse, my government health care system told me I had to wait six months to see a specialist,— she says, noting that she traveled to the United States, where she received “world-class health care— that saved her life.

Another group that sprung up recently, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, produced a radio ad warning: “A system like England or Canada, where national boards make your health care decisions, and waiting lists reign supreme — that’s what some in Washington mean by reform.—

Conservatives in the Senate are echoing such arguments.

“A Washington takeover of the health care system will only lead to delay and denial of treatment and disrupt the sacred doctor-patient relationship,— Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a statement this month.

Earlier this year, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) sounded a similar theme.

“In Great Britain, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere, government bureaucrats decide which patients may receive which treatments based on how beneficial the treatment will be — beneficial to the government, that is, not the patient,— he said.

The White House plan for broadcasting its message begins with Obama himself, who will be out touting his ideas. Cabinet members and senior aides will also be enlisted, with a major sales role planned for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. White House health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, who has so far operated mostly behind the scenes, will also have a public role.

A linchpin of Obama’s argument is that health reform will help trim the deficit by reducing the growth in health costs, which are a major driver of federal spending. The mantra by Democrats and the White House that “health care equals entitlement reform— particularly grates on Republicans, who argue that the costs of ensuring more people outweigh the savings from reform.

“The bottom line is that health care reform will not by itself repair the skyrocketing spending and deficit problems that face the U.S. government, and no one should be under any illusion that it will,— said Chuck Blahous, an expert on entitlements who helped lead President George W. Bush’s effort to overhaul Social Security. “In fact, it is at least as likely to make a difficult situation worse as it is better, at least insofar as federal finances are concerned,— Blahous said.

The linkage of Obama’s health principles with a decline in costs will dovetail with the other summer theme planned by the White House communications team, which will focus on efforts to rescue the economy.

White House economic aides such as National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag will be out front arguing that health reform will help control federal spending and reduce the cost of care for all.

The White House is already beginning to enlist outside groups in its health care drive, activating Obama’s former campaign apparatus, Organizing for America, to begin ginning up local support.

With an eye on the grass roots, the White House will also coordinate with lawmakers — including the chairmen of the relevant committees and rank-and-file backers of Obama’s ideas — who will be tasked with taking Obama’s health reform message home to their districts and states.