Recess Ads to Flow Freely

Posted August 3, 2009 at 6:24pm

Though medical groups are still under orders not to blast attack ads as they wait for a Senate Finance Committee health care reform bill, trade groups and corporate players are nonetheless ratcheting up their messages over the August recess.

They are dispatching their allies to Congressional districts to connect with Members at town hall meetings and launching grass-roots initiatives to poke holes in proposals they don’t want to see included in a health care overhaul.

Jon Selib, chief of staff to Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), told health care stakeholders last week that it was important for groups to remain supportive of the efforts in order for the negotiations to bear fruit, according to a Democratic lobbyist at the meeting.

With Baucus aiming for a Sept. 15 markup, the August recess will provide one of the last big pushes before a Senate bill is likely finished.

And as Democratic Members step up their attack on the insurance industry, all eyes are on the powerful sector, which was a major force for sinking reform in 1993 and 1994.

One health care lobbyist said the insurance industry will engage in an “extremely aggressive, well-funded effort— over the recess with much of the message aimed at stopping a public insurance option.

“The industry will be very aggressive on TV, radio and with grass roots, attending district meetings all focused on the key issues — the public plan being one of them,— this lobbyist said. The health insurance industry also will focus on the jobs it provides in Congressional districts.

Although the health plans will continue a seven-figure, nationwide TV advertising campaign, the ads are expected to focus on what reforms the sector supports and has itself proposed.

Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, is hosting a media teleconference this morning to help get the message out.

“Our ad campaign will continue, but we’re going to continue to talk about what we’re for,— AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said. “The inconvenient fact is that we have already proposed to completely overhaul how health insurance is provided in this country. We’ve proposed consumer protections and market reforms.—

AHIP, a key stakeholder at the table with the Senate Finance negotiators, does not support the public insurance option, and will help drive home that message to lawmakers at town-hall-style events and other venues where Members will have an open ear for constituents. The group also has grass-roots organizers in most states.

“We have people on the ground in over 30 states,— Zirkelbach said. “We have our community — industry employees — who will participate in these events and talk about what their priorities are for reform. Our industry is proud of our record. We have a good story to tell.—

To combat what the group sees as inaccurate political rhetoric, Zirkelbach said AHIP will operate a 24-hour rapid-response Web site.

Insurer Regence BlueCross BlueShield launched a new campaign this week called “What’s the Real Cost?— Regence’s press release said the effort “strives to educate and inspire discussion, engagement and action.—

New coalitions are also beginning to bud, one health care lobbyist said, among insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, hospitals and medical societies beyond their typical trade groups. “These will go live in the August recess,— the lobbyist said.

Health care lobbyists say they aren’t surprised that the health insurance industry is opting against going overtly negative, given that its nemesis, the public option, is likely to be nixed in the final package.

“Their strategy has been to raise a lot of questions, but not do it in a confrontational manner,— said one health care lobbyist.

While the Senate Finance panel may have effectively kept its thumb on provider groups, many of those organizations have unleashed fiery rhetoric for the House health care reform package.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — which has been running positive, pro-reform television ads and has a deal with the Finance Committee over health care reform — on Friday blasted the House Energy and Commerce reform bill, saying the measure would “hurt patients and kill jobs— in part because it would set up government negotiations over Medicare drug pricing.

The House bill would “act as a tax increase by raising premiums for seniors in the popular Medicare prescription drug program, severely restrict patient access and choice and hurt an innovative sector that currently employs hundreds of thousands of workers,— PhRMA’s statement said. “While we will continue to work toward supporting comprehensive health care reform, we will vigorously oppose legislation that hurts patients and the American economy.—

Many groups are still plotting their strategy and planning their agenda for August recess.

Neil Trautwein, the National Retail Federation’s top health care lobbyist, planned to spend this morning on a conference call with local and national retailers to coordinate the group’s grass-roots activities over this month. The NRF also has set up a function on its Web site that helps retailers send e-mails and letters to their Members of Congress.

“We’re trying to encourage a lot of activity in our membership, to attending meetings and contacting Congress,— said Trautwein, whose group is opposed to a government-run insurance plan and to employer-mandated health coverage. “We will continue to just try to keep stirring the activity pot over recess.—

The NRF, however, has no plans to run advertising, he said. “There are enough problems with the House bill that the public is worried about it,— he said. “It makes the task of getting our story across all the easier.—

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents pharmacy benefits companies, has its own problems with the House bill.

The group has been lobbying for a speedy pathway for the government to approve generic, or follow-on, biologic therapies. On Friday, Energy and Commerce approved an amendment that gives name-brand biologics a dozen years of market exclusivity. That’s too long in the eyes of the PCMA, and the group is working to retool its recess message.

“Obviously, with the dust settling from late Friday, we’re still in the decision-making process of where to dedicate our resources,— PCMA spokesman Charles Coté said. “We’re going through everything right now. But we’re going to be continuing our aggressive, targeted media campaign, advertising online, print and radio.—

The National Association of Manufacturers, which opposes any taxing of employer-sponsored health plans, isn’t running any ads this month, but NAM spokeswoman Erin Streeter said her group is asking its members to have meetings with their federal lawmakers to discuss health care, climate change and card check legislation.

“We really want to make sure what [Members] are doing over August recess is telling their personal story,— Streeter said.

The AARP, the seniors lobby, is launching a van tour with stops in such states as California, New York and Wisconsin at big-box stores. It also plans to participate in 40 community town hall events, 15 events with Members of Congress and eight opinion-leader forums, according to AARP spokesman Jim Dau. In the next two weeks, the AARP will launch a print ad campaign and plans to launch TV ads after that, he said.