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Special interests gear up for Clinton health reform Insurers, others to spend millions


To the casual observer, the talk show being broadcast on Los Angeles television tomorrow afternoon might seem nothing more than a tame version of the "Donahue" or "Geraldo" shows.

Instead of discussing aberrant social behavior or criminal conduct, the participants will focus on a less sensational subject: health care reform.

But the slick, half-hour program is not a syndicated talk show; it is actually a carefully produced "infomercial" paid for by the Health Insurance Association of American as part of a $4 million ad campaign designed to influence the reform proposal that President Clinton will unveil next month.

Indeed, it is one of many advertisements being aired on television or published in newspapers across the country by a wide variety of special interest groups in the health care field who fear their livelihood may be jeopardized by the changes being considered by the administration.

Among those groups now running ad campaigns are the drug companies, the physicians, the distillers, the chiropractors, occupational therapists, some of the major health insurers and the American Association of Retired Persons.

By delivering their message to the public prior to the unveiling of Mr. Clinton's plan, these groups hope either to influence the president's health care advisers or -- failing that -- to persuade the American public to be skeptical of the White House proposal.

Their purpose, according to Peter Fenn, a well-known media consultant, is clearly "to help frame the debate and get input into the process" of deciding what will be in the president's proposal. He added: "My guess is there is also some flexing of muscle here."

Not surprisingly, the ads have drawn criticism from some consumer groups, most of which cannot afford expensive ad campaigns.

"These ads are being funded by the health profiteers," said Arnold Bennett, spokesman for Families USA Foundation. "They are trying to defend their excess profits, which they don't want to give up."

Of all the advertising campaigns now under way, none has been as expensive as the one funded by HIAA, a group of small medium-sized insurers who fear that they will be put out of business if the president's plan does as expected and favors managed care over old-fashioned indemnity health insurance.

According to Richard Coorsh, HIAA spokesman, the group's infomercial is the culmination of a nationwide radio, television and newspaper ad campaign that HIAA began about a month ago under the name of the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices. The theme of these ads: Americans want to be able to choose their own doctors.

Mr. Coorsh said HIAA's polls showed that choice of doctors is an issue with broad appeal among Americans. It also is a good issue for HIAA to emphasize because, unlike managed care, indemnity insurance permits patients to see any doctor.

By emphasizing an issue with broad appeal, experts say, HIAA appears to be countering a widespread negative attitude among Americans toward insurance companies. In the past, Mr. Clinton has tried to build support for his health care reform plan by promising that it will "get tough" on insurers.

Meanwhile, the big insurance companies -- Aetna, MetLife, CIGNA, Prudential and Travelers -- have been sponsoring a modest advertising campaign of their own. Calling themselves the Alliance for Managed Competition, these insurers have been running ads in publications read by Washington policy-makers. The ads offers 14 ideas to be included in Mr. Clinton's health care reform plan.

Carol A. Kelly, MetLife's vice president, said the ad is intended to demonstrate that the insurers "welcome reform and plan to participate actively in the debate."

Like the insurers, members of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers America also have mounted a rich ad campaign designed to dispel the widely held view that high drug prices are responsible for rising health care costs. PMA's ads emphasize that the manufacturers support prescription drug coverage for all Americans.

Likewise, the American Medical Association is running occasional ads expressing the support of doctors for health care reform.

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