Advertising wars escalate in health care fight

The type of advertising war that helped doom the last effort to overhaul the nation's health care system is heating up.

Business groups opposed to health care bills floated by House and Senate Democrats launched print ads this week. The Republican National Committee ran its own TV ad as well.

Until now, ads for and against President Obama's proposed health care overhaul have been run by lesser-known groups. Interested groups are stepping up their efforts during Congress' July Fourth recess.

"It's probably the starting gun," says Evan Tracey of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

The boost in negative ads comes as Congress begins to move on Democratic legislation. Of concern to employers is a provision that would force them to offer insurance or pay fees. Health insurers don't want to compete with a public insurance plan funded at least in part by tax dollars.

Whether the advertising reaches the level of 1994 remains to be seen. Then, the health insurance industry ran a series of TV ads featuring a couple, Harry and Louise, that helped to bring down President Clinton's complex plan.

This week's entries have been the most pointed so far this year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran a full-page ad in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, opposing the employer mandate and public insurance plan. "Health care reform that punishes employers would be bad for the economy and jobs," the ad warned.

The National Federation of Independent Business ran an ad in The Hill, a similar publication, and plans an Internet ad next week. "We need to make it really clear that a mandate will kill jobs," spokeswoman Stephanie Cathcart said.

The GOP ad ran Wednesday on cable TV as ABC aired a town-hall-style meeting on health care from the White House. "When he says 'government option,' that means putting government bureaucrats in charge," the ad intoned.

So far, insurers have kept their money on the sidelines. "It's still early in the process," says Robert Zirkelbach of America's Health Insurance Plans. "We haven't taken anything off the table."

A group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights, headed by former Columbia/HCA Healthcare executive Richard Scott, is launching a round of 30-second cable TV ads in 11 states next week. The ads target 14 senators who could help decide the fate of Obama's public option. Scott's group has spent more than $1 million a month since March, much of it his own money.

Last month, a group called Patients United Now joined the ad wars in opposition. It's backed by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group headed by political strategist Tim Phillips that claims more than 22,000 donors. One of its founders was David Koch of Koch Industries; two of its current directors are Art Pope, a North Carolina conservative activist and businessman, and James Miller, former budget director in the Reagan administration.

On the other side of the issue, Health Care for America Now, a coalition created last year, made its first media buy of more than $1 million this month. Much of the money for TV ads in 10 states comes from the group's steering committee, including labor unions and civil rights groups.

"As the health care debate is heating up, we're spending more on advertising," said Jacki Schechner, the coalition's spokeswoman., a political action committee that claims 5 million members and an average donation under $100, launched an ad Thursday targeting Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for "dragging her heels" on Obama's effort. Feinstein recently said on CNN that Obama doesn't have the votes to pass his bill now.