The grassroots army is on the march. On Wednesday, Campaign Desk reported that health insurers have called up the grassroots reserves to help fight their battles over health reform and Medicare Advantage plans. But oops! The industry got ambushed in Massachusetts, where seniors have been bombarding their local newspapers with letters demanding that their Congressional representatives protect Medicare Advantage plans from federal funding cuts.

Score one for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts—circulation 50,000. As is customary in the business when letters show up, the paper checked with the letter writers to see if their submissions were legit. They weren’t. A fine story by editorial page editor Ken Johnson told a sorry tale of Astroturf lobbying and how the paper got letters from seniors who had never heard of Medicare Advantage plans.

Seventy-five-year old Lawrence resident Gloria Gosselin told the paper “I did not write a letter to the editor. It’s not from me.” Ana Abascal’s letter said she “wanted to express how important my Medicare Advantage health plan is to me and other fixed-income seniors in my community.” But when Johnson talked to her, she said she did not know what a Medicare Advantage plan was. William Morin of New Bedford learned that a letter he sent was addressed to the “New Bedford Eagle-Tribune.” He said he had never heard of the paper. That’s not surprising: it doesn’t exist.

Johnson got suspicious when a man named Noah called the paper and asked if Gloria Gosselin’s letter had been published. Noah said he was Gosselin’s grandson. (Gosselin has no grandson named Noah.) Johnson poked around and found that Noah is an intern in the Boston office of the Dewey Square Group, a national political marketing and consulting firm that has worked for political big shots and America’s Health Insurance Plans, (AHIP) the industry trade group.

The Eagle-Tribune explained what the Dewey Square Group is and mentioned its ties to a strategist on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. It also reported how the Coalition for Medicare Choices, a “product coalition” created by AHIP, had been luring seniors to community meetings with offers of free food, door prizes, and a chance to press the flesh with their Congressional representatives. The Coalition’s Web site urges seniors to attend such Medicare Advantage community meetings; a schedule shows that another will be held in Philadelphia next week.

Johnson grilled two spokeswomen from Dewey Square, who defended their Astroturf campaign as legitimate and seemed to blame seniors for their foggy memories when Johnson confronted them with the phony letters he received. One suggested that time had elapsed between the meetings where seniors saw the letters and the date the letters arrived at the newspaper, so perhaps they couldn’t remember sending them. Another explained that seniors know the name of their health plan, but may not know it’s a Medicare Advantage plan. “They don’t know what Medicare Advantage is but they know their health plan, and they like it,” she said.

Johnson balanced off his piece by interviewing Judith Stein, executive director of the Connecticut-based Center for Medicare Advocacy, who gave the counterarguments for cutting the overpayments to the plans. (Medicare pays sellers of Advantage plans some 14 percent more than it costs to provide the same benefits directly under traditional Medicare, and experts believe that money could be better spent.) Stein said she had seen no true grassroots effort to support Medicare Advantage plans, which carry significant disadvantages—like large hidden co-insurance requirements—that are seldom discussed before a policyholder gets sick.

This is not AHIP’s first effort to rally the grassroots around Medicare Advantage plans. The Coalition, founded by AHIP back in 1999, swung into action two years ago when Congress threatened to cut the payments to sellers. Its mission was the same—to organize a letter and e-mail campaign directed at members of Congress. It worked: Congress did not cut funding that year.

Back then, a different public relations counseling firm was running the show—Democracy & Data Communications, whose suburban Washington address was the same one given for the Coalition on its Web site. (There’s now a different address on the Coalition’s Web site.) The firm’s clients included AHIP and two companies, Humana and United Healthcare, which have profited from Medicare Advantage plans.

Johnson says he gets tons of Astroturf letters—like the ones from the Coalition—each day, and they’re usually easy to spot. These, he said, were written in a “corporate marketing department style.” If they’re easy to spot, then why do PR firms keep sending them? Because they’re effective, Johnson explained, noting that when he checked with Google, he found that lots of small papers were running them. His advice for editorial page editors and others inclined toward gullibility: “Be vigilant and don’t let people use your letters columns as a marketing tool.”

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.