Two views of the insurance industry lobby emerged in the press the last couple of weeks—one an AP puff piece bordering on PR for the industry trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), and the other a thoughtful, incisive article by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. The stories are instructive for those following the activities of AHIP, which will be super influential as soon as there’s a health bill to mark up behind the scenes in Congressional meeting rooms.

The lede of an AP story by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar projected a positive spin for the insurance industry, not exactly a popular bunch these days. “The health insurance industry is working on a transformation that could come right out of ‘Extreme Makeover,’” Zaldivar wrote, reporting that insurers, long cast as villains that denied coverage and services, “now are representing themselves as indispensable partners in health care overhaul.” They are showing, he said, that they are in a unique position to improve medical quality, root out waste, and save money so everyone can be covered—with policies sold by their members, of course. Said AHIP president Karen Ignagni: “We understand we need to come to the table with very specific solutions.”

The story explained how “the industry has won a measure of respect from some longtime adversaries” such as John Rother, AARP’s chief lobbyist, and Ron Pollack, the Families USA head who has become the go-to person for quote when the media need a liberal viewpoint. It’s not clear how adversarial either Rother or Pollack really are, or whether they will be AHIP allies in the end.

AARP makes a bundle selling seniors health insurance policies offered by some of the biggest carriers on AHIP’s membership roster. Pollack’s group has strong ties to supporters of the Massachusetts health reform law that essentially delivers thousands of customers to private insurers. The current president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation sits on the board of Families USA. As Campaign Desk pointed out yesterday, the Foundation served as the catalyst for the law, and is deeply involved in its implementation.

Zaldivar noted that insurance companies might become partners with the government—“that’s not as strange as it may seem”—and he pointed out how private carriers now provide Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. The story then devoted several graphs to insurance giant WellPoint, a carrier that has been in big trouble with the government for denying seniors access to critical medications they were entitled to under the drug benefit. The AP story didn’t get into that, but instead, in a bit of advance publicity for WellPoint, discussed a soon-to-be-released study by the carrier that found doctors who treat patients with back pain don’t always follow national guidelines, sometimes rushing to do expensive imaging tests and surgery before the guidelines say they should. Postponing such procedures could save some $24 million annually. “We think we can play a central role in delivering value,” WellPoint CEO Angela Braly told the AP.

An extreme makeover for the insurance industry? Hiltzik, on the other hand, made clear that there was no makeover at all. His column dissected AHIP’s current positions compared to those it held in the past. After reading the trade association’s sixteen-page policy, Hiltzik concluded that “its version of ‘reform’ comprises the same wish list that the industry has been pushing for decades.” Hiltzik ticked off those wishes for readers. The industry wants:

• The government to assume the cost of treating the sickest people.
• The government to clamp down hard on doctors’ and hospitals’ fees.
• Permission to sell stripped-down, low benefit policies without interference from state regulators.
• The government to require every American to buy insurance coverage in exchange for agreeing to accept every applicant, even those at death’s door.

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.