Who Was at the Table?

A clever lobbying tactic from the insurers

No one can ever call the insurance lobby stupid. Last fall a pro-reform advocate was positively gleeful when she told me that the industry was finished—kaput—because it lost big-time when one of its studies didn’t pass the sniff test.

Really, I replied. The press went gaga over the AHIP (an industry trade group)’s slip-up, for example, but it should have been watching what it was doing on the side. In fact, it should have been watching what the business community was doing, too. Of the zillions of words written about what lobbyists were doing to influence the legislation, very few of them explained that a campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was underway to stop the public plan and make sure that firms, large and small, were not subject to burdensome mandates to provide coverage for their workers. (The public plan is dead, but it’s not yet clear what obligations employers will have.)

Which brings me to the revelations this week from the National Journal—a good scoop, I’d say. Reporting by Peter H. Stone dug up how the insurers and the Chamber got in bed together, giving more oomph to the opposition to the public plan (which the Chamber opposed nearly as vehemently as the insurers did). Beginning in September and continuing through December, the country’s biggest insurers—Aetna, WellPoint, United HealthCare, et al—funneled between $10 and $20 million to the Chamber to help pay for expensive television ads from business coalitions set up and subsidized by the Chamber: the Campaign for Responsible Health Reform and Employers for a Healthy Economy.

The insurance money, Stone reported, accounts for as much as one quarter of the Chamber’s budget. Right before the Senate passed its bill in December, a commercial aired that was paid for by the Chamber of Commerce. It didn’t mention the public plan, which Senator Joe Lieberman had killed off a few days before. Instead it conveyed—its words spoken in the classic tones of accusatory AttackAd-ese—that health reform means HIDDEN TAXES: on medicine, on medical devices, on health insurance. And that drug and device makers, and insurance companies, had engaged in eleventh-hour lobbying to avoid such taxes that lawmakers say are needed to pay for subsidies for the uninsured. At the end of the commercial, Employers for a Healthy Economy asked Arkansas Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor to start over. And it urged viewers, presumably in Arkansas, to call their senators to amplify that message.

Stone’s piece reported that “a lobbying source” told him the insurance industry wanted to use a third party for its last-ditch advertising to avoid another Harry and Louise scenario. (Harry and Lousise: that TV duo who helped sink the Clinton health care plan and has been vilified ever since.) The Chamber’s bedfellows now include the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation, and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, whose spokesman told the National Journal: “You don’t quit. You fight this thing all the way.”

And fighting all the way they are. But why there’s been so little interest in reporting on the fighting by the Chamber & Friends is a bit puzzling to us on Campaign Desk. In late June we reported that the press, at that point, largely focused on lobbying by the insurance industry, ignoring the business community. (“Anyone who thinks that trade groups representing American business are snoozing in their tents is sorely mistaken,” we wrote.) We also revealed that the Chamber had planned for the fall a “sustained national media, education, and grassroots advocacy campaign” that would undoubtedly have health care in mind. Guess what? It did. But the nation’s press didn’t get it.

There’s still a chance, though. The Chamber’s business coalition is fighting this thing to the finish line. Will the device makers rid themselves of the tax? Will employers have to offer health coverage? How the fight will end is surely the stuff for some juicy stories. We hope Peter Stone keeps looking.

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Trudy Lieberman is 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. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.