The influence game: Health lobby truces may fray

Associated Press | 5/20/2009, 4:48 a.m.

While participating in several alliances, AARP recently announced its own priorities. It bought television and newspaper ads touting one of them — expanded Medicare coverage for post-hospital care — and constantly meets with lawmakers and uses the Internet and mailings to keep its members engaged.

“It’s an easy sell to get our members and their families to come talk about health care, because it is viewed as an economic issue,” said Nancy LeaMond, an AARP executive vice president.

Some groups are already at war. Conservatives for Patients Rights, led by former hospital executive Rick Scott, has spent more than $2 million on television ads alleging that Obama’s plan smacks of government-run medical care.

On the other side, Health Care for America Now, backed by labor and liberal groups, hopes to spend $35 million or more to push the president’s plan. It is running television ads highlighting how Scott’s former health care company pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, and has given congressional Democrats a memo on how to make their arguments. Some advice: “Always emphasize choice of a public or private health insurance plan.”

Such skirmishing, though, has been the exception. So far this year, $24 million has been spent on ads backing health care changes and just $3 million opposing them, says Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a firm that tracks issue advertising. Most of the negative ads have come from Scott’s group.

Among the newfound partners, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has joined with Families USA, a liberal group supporting health coverage for all, to run newspaper ads touting expanded federal medical aid for low- and mid-income people. Billy Tauzin, who heads the drug lobby, says millions more will be spent to activate voters in key congressional districts.

“It lowers the temperature level of the debate,” Ron Pollack, Families USA’s executive director, said of the coalitions. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be controversial issues.”

AARP, groups representing small businesses and corporate giants, and the Service Employees have used their muscle to promote Divided We Fail, which aligns over 100 organizations behind affordable health care and long-term financial security. Their effort includes forums around the country and Internet drives to lure supporters and raise money — including selling T-shirts bearing their emblem, a half elephant, half donkey, melding the symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Already, one coalition has ruptured, and more are likely to follow.

Eighteen groups including AARP, business, and the health care industry reached consensus on expanding health coverage, curbing costs and improving care. But two labor giants, the Service Employees and AFSCME, representing government workers, dropped out after the group refused to endorse creating optional government health insurance or requiring employers to provide coverage.

(Associated Press)