Insurers Stick to Wonky Talking Points

Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:46pm

The health insurance industry is not fighting reform proposals primarily with glitzy advertising campaigns or slick messaging, but rather with wonkish studies and data-heavy reports.

But those reports on the costs associated with the Senate health care reform package are not getting much traction on Capitol Hill, and that has led some industry insiders to quietly grumble about the sector’s lobbying strategy at a critical moment in the debate.

The most recent report was released Friday by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. It found that premiums in the individual market would rise on average by 54 percent compared with rates today.

But just because the study didn’t get much fanfare in the national media — and Senate Republicans didn’t rush to counter the Democratic health care plan push with the cost-curve argument — don’t expect insurance associations to change their lobbying strategy anytime soon.

“It’s really critically important that everybody understands what these bills would do to premiums,— said Alissa Fox, a lobbyist at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

The decision to push forward with the same lobbying strategy comes as the White House and Senate Democrats are aggressively pushing back against the report, condemning its findings.

“What a joke,— Senate Finance Committee spokesman Scott Mulhauser said in a statement about the report. “How many fatally-flawed ‘reports’ do insurance companies need before their credibility is entirely shot?

“This is akin to the tobacco companies commissioning another study claiming nicotine isn’t addictive and cigarettes don’t cause cancer,— he added.

The Congressional Budget Office has put out its own findings on premium increases. The CBO found that the Senate health care bill would increase individual premiums by up to 13 percent.

The association, which already put out a previous study this fall, is standing by its findings.

Fox, senior vice president of policy and representation at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, said the group didn’t “want to have a war of words— with Senate Democrats and the White House.

“We want to focus on needed changes,— Fox said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is pushing to increase incentives for people to buy coverage and to get Congress to drop a proposed tax on insurers, among other things.

Not everybody in the insurance influence sector is happy with the decision to stay the course.

“They just fight all the way to the end no matter how lost the battle might be,— said one industry lobbyist who is critical of the current strategy. “Most people in the industry view reform as inevitable.—

Still, another industry lobbyist said the broader insurance community isn’t going to proactively push health care reform because it wants to be on record about what the legislation is going to do.

“At this point, politics is the 100 percent driving force and the substance matters less,— said the second lobbyist who does work for the insurance industry. “The frustration for them is less about changing the playbook. … When people have to pay more, it won’t be the insurers who face their wrath, it will be politicians in 2013 and 2014.—

Unlike 1994, when insurance companies were the mastermind of powerful television ads that helped sway the public against health care reform, this year they’ve focused more on how reform will affect consumers’ premiums.

America’s Health Insurance Plans spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said his group doesn’t even have an ad buy in the works. In October, AHIP released a report that said health insurance premiums would rise for the typical American family to $4,000 by 2019.

That report received widespread media attention, and Senate Democrats and the White House pounced as well.

“Quite frankly, it was a very bogus report,— Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said at the time. “I was quite frankly surprised and embarrassed that they would issue something like that. It did not at all pass the test of rigorous analysis.—

But Zirkelbach defended both the October report and recent reports saying they have had the important effect of changing the debate to focus on cost.

“We have seen a lot of the conversation has shifted to cost at the end of last week,— Zirkelbach said. “We’re going to focus on what the data shows and that’s where our focus has been when it comes to the cost issue.—