No one packed heat, no one screamed at a member of Congress, no one called anybody a Nazi, no fistfights broke out. So—no story.
All that happened was that on Thursday, Oct. 1, a moving van pulled up in front of the largest house in a Main Line neighborhood just outside Philadelphia—the home of H. Edward Hanway, CEO of CIGNA, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies—and eight demonstrators from Health Care for America Now (HCAN) got out. One was Stacie Ritter, a former CIGNA customer whose twin girls were afflicted with cancer at the age of four. Their treatment left permanent damage. CIGNA refused to pay for the human growth hormones that her doctor prescribed to help her daughters grow properly. When her husband was briefly unemployed, they were bankrupted.
No one was home at Hanway’s mansion. Ritter left a note to explain that the van symbolized a request: “Can I stay in your carriage house until we get back on our feet financially?”
The same day, in Indianapolis, HCAN organized a house call on Angela Braly, CEO of WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurance company. And in Wayzata, Minn., fifty protesters, holding umbrellas and candles, stood outside the lakeside mansion of UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley, in the rain, and screened a video that was unkind to the company. (HCAN has tried to buy time to broadcast the video on CNN, but the network refuses to air it.)
Total number of print and broadcast reporters who showed up at any of the three events: Zero.
For several months, HCAN—a national coalition of religious groups, community organizations, unions, senior citizen groups, health care professionals, and consumer advocates—has been organizing polite demonstrations, rallies, and public forums, trying to put faces on an industry that has spent multiple millions of dollars lobbying against reform, while angry protests at town meetings swelled August’s big national story. On Sept. 22, HCAN sponsored about 150 demonstrations at various insurance company headquarters around the country. The Los Angeles Times did not bother to report about the several hundred demonstrators at WellPoint’s California subsidiary office, located a few blocks from the newspaper’s office; nor The New York Times those outside UnitedHealth in midtown Manhattan. *
The HCAN rallies did attract print and broadcast coverage in dozens of cities, but most reporters treated them as isolated local events rather than components of a nationally coordinated protest (its slogan, “Big Insurance: Sick of It”) and a burgeoning grassroots movement.
HCAN hopes that these protests will pressure moderate Senate Democrats into supporting a public option by highlighting their financial and personal ties to insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists. Since 2007, the insurance industry and HMOs have spent $51 million in campaign contributions, targeted disproportionately to key members of the Congressional committees drafting health reform bills. They also spent at least $191 million on lobbyists, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. HCAN wants voters to ask their elected officials: Which side are you on?
The reformers face a fundamental imbalance. Insurance companies don’t need street protests to get heard in Congress. But HCAN faces a social movement’s eternal problem of how to attract public attention without looking like disturbers of the peace. Last week, they reckoned that uninvited visits to CEO mansions ought to qualify as a man-bites-dog story, one with obvious relevance to a bigger ongoing story and therefore stamped with newsworthiness.
With Congress debating extensive health care reform, and companies like CIGNA, WellPoint, and UnitedHealth major protagonists, the organizers supposed that their protests would dramatize the exorbitant profits of the insurance industry and the imposing compensation they pay top executives (UnitedHealth’s Hemsley made $57,000 per day last year) while millions of Americans go without insurance or bankrupt themselves with medical bills.
HCAN was mistaken.
“At a certain point,” Indianapolis Star senior editor Jenny Green told us, the demonstrators are “not adding to the debate. They’re just one side saying exactly what you’d expect them to say.”
Her colleague, Greg Weaver, the Star’s deputy public service editor for business, maintained that the raucous town meetings of August, dominated by conservative activists shouting down Democratic Congressmembers, were newsworthy because they “are more of a public forum where you have many sides of the debate, whereas at the [HCAN] protest [at WellPoint CEO Bray’s house] you have only one side of the debate.”