Who Will Be at the Table? Part VII

WellPoint brings forth voices from the grassroots

During the campaign, Barack Obama promised his cheering crowds that, when he rolled up his sleeves to work on health care, he would “have insurance company representatives and drug company representatives at the table. They just won’t be able to buy every chair.” Now is a good time to look at just what kind of seats special interest groups will have at Obama’s table, and what they’re doing to bring the public around to their ways of thinking. This is the seventh of an occasional series of posts that will analyze their activities and how the media are covering them. The entire series is archived here.

WellPoint, the insurance behemoth, is tapping its grassroots—the policyholders who have bought its Medicare Advantage plans, its policies with their low premiums and skimpy benefits, and its high-deductible contracts that can leave families woefully underinsured when a medical catastrophe hits. The carrier has staked out a lucrative business selling policies to individuals, and it will profit immensely from the kind of reform talked about in Congress—mandating that the nearly fifty million uninsured Americans must carry health insurance.

A lot of them, no doubt, will become WellPoint customers. And it’s a good bet that the insurer is not too keen on the much-discussed public plan that would let these folks choose between buying from WellPoint or signing up for a public option that might be cheaper and offer better coverage.

WellPoint’s “grass tops,” as they are called in the lobbying biz, are already hard at work—the company’s highest execs have been roaming the corridors of Congress for months. Now the company is deploying the grassroots; its Health Action Network has already swung into action, ready to gin up messages to members of Congress. Letter- and e-mail writing, aka political communications, are the forte of the grassroots, which often uses suggested messages and form letters to help “educate” the pols. Wellpoint’s Web site doesn’t yet display much in the way of suggested messages or form letters. That will come later. Right now the insurer seems to be in the get-acquainted stage, gathering names of folks it can call on when the era of good feelings among the special interests melts into hard-knuckle politics.

The WellPoint Web site gently welcomes visitors by telling them that they are the voice for better health care and that “America has the best health care providers in the world, top-notch facilities, and world-leading researchers.” Reassuring, yes? Next comes the show of concern: “Unfortunately, millions of Americans still do not have access to quality health care.” What follows is the solution, which sounds to me like carefully crafted code words designed to soothe fears of government-run health care: “We believe there is a need for stronger public policies that enable more Americans to benefit from health care services—without undermining the quality services that already reach millions of people.”

WellPoint urges visitors to tell elected officials what’s important to them; what’s working; what’s not; and how the system can be improved. The Web site provides a convenient “Legislator Search” option, so someone can easily send a message. (By now, though, you would think that the President and every member of Congress have heard all that a million times, on the campaign trail and at the community listening parties the administration held earlier this year.)

Site visitors can complete a short survey that, WellPoint says, “will help ensure your voice is heard when President Obama and Congress tackle the issues involved in building a sustainable health care system.” But the survey seems more about gathering names and e-mail addresses to help with the grassroots campaign than about learning what ordinary people want from health reform. It asks whether respondents are aware of the health reform debate, whether they are interested in following it, whether they are willing to get involved and make their voices heard, whether they would attend a community forum, whether they want to receive future updates from WellPoint, and whether they are WellPoint policyholders. There are also sections where people can bone up on federal issues, including Medicare Advantage plans.

Astroturf lobbying is nothing new, of course. But a few years ago America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the industry’s trade group, began a concerted effort to goose its member insurers into beefing up their grassroots advocacy. To create a “leading-edge” program so the industry could “meet its challenges and set the health care agenda in Washington for years to come,” AHIP’s Grassroots Task Force laid out four objectives:

• Create a culture of advocacy across the industry

• Strengthen AHIP’s capability to mobilize allies

• Prepare the industry to meet long-term political challenges

• Bolster product-specific grassroots coalitions and capabilities

This last one is important for the media. The Coalition for Medicare Choices—one of what AHIP calls its “product coalitions”—is using its Web site to collect names of people it can call on to protest threatened cuts in the amount of money Medicare Advantage plans receive from the federal government. That site encourages Medicare beneficiaries to “Join more than 810,000 seniors and doctors to protect Medicare Advantage.” The Coalition, which was called into action last time there was a major effort to reduce funding for plans, also provides seniors with links to media stories about possible cuts—although not to any that CJR’s Campaign Desk has published.

So there you have it—grassroots advocacy from a major insurance company and grassroots advocacy from one of the industry’s product coalitions. How’s that for synergy? That might be what AHIP’s task force had in mind. It’s a potent combination that the public might want to know about, in case they are unwittingly used to further an agenda that may not be theirs.

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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.