And was CMPI Advance the kind of third-party outfit APCO says it specializes in recruiting—a surrogate for insurers and drug companies to spread their messages far and wide throughout the conservative and mainstream media? The press call featured Dr. Gary Puckrein, president of the National Minority Quality Health Forum, who said “we have tremendous reservations about government plans,” and Dr. Val Jones, founder and CEO of Better Health Network. Jones said that a public plan would force physicians to treat people as codes, not patients. (Presumably she meant the medical billing codes that doctors use.) Their comments mirrored the tone of the content found on the campaign’s labyrinthine Web sites, which—sleekly designed, supplying tons of information in short, digestible bites—have clearly been done by a pro.
The sites are awash with stuff that raises doubts about a public plan and the possiblity of stifling medical innovation, such as op-eds by Goldberg from outlets like the American Spectator and the Detroit News. There are quotes disparaging or questioning such a plan from academics like Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt, elected officials like Sen. Joe Lieberman and Michael Enzi, and editorial boards of newspapers like The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. There are links to articles by people like Family Research Council senior fellow Ken Blackwell, who casts doubts about the actual number of uninsured folks in the country. Page after page urges site visitors to “Join the fight against government-run health care” by signing a petition telling politicians to “do no harm to our health care system,” and noting that the public plan is a “poison pill for patients, doctors and the entire American health care system.”
One site zooms in on what’s wrong with health systems in other nations; its home page refers visitors to the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest’s new mini-documentary called Off-label: Universal Healthcare. In the mini-doc, Goldberg and Center president Peter Pitts—who himself is a partner in another PR agency, Porter Novelli—claim they will help viewers separate fact from fiction about health care. The documentary also features man-on-the-street interviews that appear to create confusion about the difference between government and universal health care.
Besides the mini-doc, the site presents health care facts (“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported that the cost of Medicare Part D is $189 billion less than predicted”), health care horror stories from victims in foreign countries, and case studies from those countries discussing such things as low doctor salaries, underinsurance, and quality of care.
The press needs to realize that sites and campaigns like these don’t just spontaneously come together. They are inevitably cynical publicity efforts on the part of corporations that, when it comes to health reform, primarily have their own financial interests in mind. No doubt there will be more slick PR jobs and messages racing to the public through all kinds of groups. It’s beginning to sound a lot like 1993-94. For the press and the public, it’s caveat emptor once again.