January 20, 2011

Jim Stubenrauch is a writer and editor with 15 years’ experience in medical publishing, health care, and education.

As Republicans in the House of Representatives move this week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I thought it would be worthwhile to follow up on my previous post about Wendell Potter, author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. Potter, a whistleblower and former head of corporate communications for insurance giant CIGNA, spoke last week at an event held by the New York Metro Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). (Potter’s presentation is available on YouTube in four parts, beginning here.)

Addressing about 200 people at CUNY’s Murphy Institute, Potter began by reading from a chapter in Deadly Spin called “The Playbook,” in which he describes the tactics lobbyists use to pressure politicians and mislead the public. The reading focused on recently thwarted proposals in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to tax soda and other “sugary beverages,” and their relevance to the struggle over health insurance reform soon became clear. Many tactics the tobacco industry developed to evade regulation and manipulate public opinion have since been adapted, very successfully, by lobbyists for other industries, including oil, banking, foods and beverages, and health insurance.

From “The Playbook,” page 233:

All of the tactics used by the oil, beverage, and banking industries to influence lawmakers at every level of government were pulled straight from the cigarette makers’ playbook: Distract people from the real problem; generate fear; split communities with rhetoric, pitting one group against another; encourage people to doubt scientific conclusions; question whether there really is a problem; and say one thing in public while working secretly to do the opposite.

Sound familiar? Potter describes one of the most powerful weapons in the lobbyist’s arsenal—the false-front grassroots or “astroturf” organization. These lavishly funded coalitions of manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retail chains, unions, and industry associations, organized by lobbying firms, pass themselves off as groups of ordinary citizens and small businesses concerned about jobs and the rising cost of living.

One such group is Americans Against Food Taxes (AAFT), originally formed to fight a sweetened-beverage tax proposed as part of an early version of the national health care reform legislation. AAFT also waged campaigns against the proposed soda taxes in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The group’s Web site is registered to Goddard Clausen, the public relations firm that produced the infamous “Harry and Louise” commercials that helped defeat the Clinton administration’s health-reform efforts in 1993-94.

According to reporting by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times this past July, Goddard Clausen is also behind another astroturf organization, New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, that has been working to defeat the soda tax proposed by former New York governor David A. Paterson. Like AAFT, the New York astroturf group set up its own Web site. Both are worth a visit for their folksy rhetoric that’s both instructive and disturbing.

At the PNHP meeting Potter also addressed the concern that the Republicans are planning to undo the health insurance mandate within the Affordable Care Act. He said:

You can rest assured that the lobbyists for the insurance companies have already had meetings with the new members of Congress and said, “Here’s the way things are: you might believe, actually, the talking points we’ve given you, that this is a government takeover of the health care system, but forget that. This is actually legislation that will keep us in business.” The insurance companies cannot go on without this legislation. They needed this, because you cannot continue to shift more and more of the cost of health care to individuals and expect them to continue buying the products. . . . The real objective is to attack the consumer protections. They will try to strip them out one by one, and they will be using language that will try to make us think it’s good for us. They will tell us that what we need is “a common sense, market-based approach to health care reform.” Remember those words, because you’re going to be hearing them more and more.

It will be interesting to see whether Potter’s prediction is accurate.