For several months, President Obama sought to create an air of inevitability around the passage of health care legislation by touting the cooperation of all the so-called “stakeholders” in the industry, many of whom have historically opposed such efforts.
When he launched his health care push in March, Obama held a White House summit with representatives from 169 different labor, industry, and policy organizations.
Obama declared from the East Room that there was a “clear consensus that the need for health care reform is here and now.” He went on to say that “Insurers agree: Scott Serota with Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said to consider past opposition the past, it is not the present; the time is right for action now.”
In May, Obama announced a deal with industry groups to wring $2 trillion of savings out of the health care system over 10 years.
“I just concluded a extraordinarily productive meeting with organizations and associations that are going to be essential to the work of health care reform in this country -- groups that represent everyone from union members to insurance companies, from doctors and hospitals to pharmaceutical companies,” Obama said.
Among the groups involved in the deal were the largest insurance industry lobbyist, America’s Health Insurance Plans, as well as the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
Then in June, Obama announced a deal between PhRMA and AARP to save $80 billion on prescription drug costs over ten years. Separately, PhRMA joined with the liberal Families USA to take out an ad playing off the “Harry and Louise” spots that helped derail health care legislation in 1994, only with the opposite message. “We can get the job done this time,” the Louise character says in the new ads.
And the AMA, which once stood opposed to government-run medicine, endorsed the liberal House Democrats health care bill, which introduces a new government-run plan.
Yet in recent weeks, with support for their health care proposals cratering, the White House and the Democratic Congress have begun lashing out at “special interests” for trying to block legislation, turning Obama's industry friends into convenient foils.
“(S)ome will try to delay action until the special interests can kill it,” President Obama said in the Rose Garden last month. At an appearance in Raleigh, North Carolina, he said: "The truth is, we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you. "
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called health insurers “the villains in this.”
The attacks grew harsher this week as Democrats sought to discredit citizens who voiced their opposition to health care legislation at town hall meetings, painting them as tools of corporations. On Thursday, Obama’s Organizing for America group emailed that “Members of Congress have been home for just a few days, and they're already facing increased pressure from insurance companies, special interests, and partisan attack organizations that are spending millions to block health insurance reform.”
But the question is: if the Democrats’ push for health care legislation is being supported by the AMA (the special interest for physicians); AHA (the special interest for hospitals); AHIP (the insurance lobby); and PhRMA (the big bad pharmaceutical industry lobbyist), then which powerful special interests are the ones trying to block reform?
“You just named them,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat told me when I posed the question to him during a Thursday conference call hosted by Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal group that has played an active role in the health care debate. “They’re out to do it their way…. Don’t think these interest groups aren’t out there every day fighting to keep their share and enlarge their share of the public health care dollar in this country, and they’re a big reason why this is so difficult.”
Brown pointed out that drug companies were trying to make sure legislation protects them from competition from generic versions of expensive biologic drugs, while insurers are campaigning against a government-run plan. “They’re trying to shape this bill,” he said.
Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s future, wrote on the Huffington Post on Wednesday that “The insurance and drug companies have sought to dilute reform on the inside while helping to fund front groups trying to torpedo it on the outside.” Such front groups, he argued, plan to “Run Astroturf campaigns and mobilize the zealots to disrupt congressional town hall meetings…”
The increased hostility toward insurers has put AHIP in a tight spot. The insurance industry group has spent several years pushing for an overhaul of the health care system. Its president, Karen Ignagni, vowed to Obama at the March White House summit that “You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year.” The group has proposed ending the practices of rejecting applicants with pre-existing conditions and pricing based on gender and health status in exchange for a mandate requiring individuals to purchase insurance. And it continues to run ads “supporting bipartisan reforms.” Nonetheless, Democrats and President Obama have attacked them for trying to block reform.
“The thousands of employees in our industry do not deserve to be vilified as part of a political game,” AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said. “We believe we have been good faith participants throughout this entire process.”
Zirkelbach said that he didn’t think support for the creation of a new government-run plan should be the “litmus test” for whether one supports reform.
And while the group has encouraged health insurance industry employees to take part in town hall meetings during the August recess, he said, the idea that the group was orchestrating a campaign to disrupt town hall meetings “has no basis in fact.”
Liberals are right that the corporate lobbyists are jockeying to get the best deal that they can out of any legislation. Drug companies would be happy to support universal health care legislation that gave them more customers, but they don’t want to give ground on the duration of their patent protections or have the government set prices. Insurers would be happy with a bill that included a mandate forcing individuals to purchase coverage and that provided them with taxpayer subsidies to do so. But the industry just doesn’t want a government-run plan that would be a threat to their existence.
The problem with arguing that the protests at town hall meetings are being orchestrated by the insurance and drug companies is that while corporations are perfectly willing to embrace government if they believe it will mean more profits for them, those protesting at the meetings have been howling about big government, higher taxes, and unsustainable deficits.
Despite liberals complaining about the money being spent by special interests on ad campaigns, the Washington Post reported this week that, “So far, spending in favor of Democratic reform plans ($17.4 million) has dwarfed spending on outright opposition ($8.1 million)…”
And as Tim Carney noted in the Washington Examiner, Democrats have raised twice as much from the insurance industry during the current election cycle than Republicans have, while Obama himself holds the all-time record for money raised by HMOs.
Obama and his liberal allies would like to blame “special interests” for the public backlash against their own health care policies, but it’s hard to do so when Obama himself went out of his way to court the very groups he now assails.