Echoes of the Past in anti-ObamaCare Ads


Watching Americans for Prosperity’s new anti-ObamaCare advertisement here in Ohio—one of the first states it’s being aired—took me back 20 years. Almost exactly 20 years, in fact.

I was a PR guy for the insurance industry in 1993, and I had joined forces with special interest trade associations, front groups and right wing organizations much like Americans for Prosperity (AFP) to scare the public away from the Clinton health care reform proposal as it was being debated in Congress.

Insurance company executives didn’t like the Clinton plan because we feared it would have a negative impact on profits.  Knowing that shrinking profit margins would not motivate many folks to get behind our effort to kill the bill, we came up with the idea of getting the public to fear it for made-up reasons.

Most insurers were at the time members of the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), which after merging with another trade group would later become America’s Health Insurance Plans. HIAA member companies contributed millions of dollars they had collected in premiums from policyholders to finance a brilliantly disingenuous ad campaign that did exactly what we had hoped: erode public support for reform. By the time the year-long campaign ended in September 1994, Congressional support for the Clinton plan fizzled. It essentially died in committee.

To get to that result, HIAA hired the advertising and consulting firm Goddard Claussen to create a series of TV commercials based on the tried-and true FUD strategy: win the public to your side by instilling fear, uncertainty and doubt. The ads were designed to make people worry about something that would not have resulted from the Clinton plan—government run health care. (Ever hear that term before?)

While it would not have actually been a government takeover of health care, the Clinton plan would have imposed new consumer-friendly regulations on insurers  that might have coverage more affordable. Insurers would have none of it.

All the HIAA ads featured a make-believe married couple, Harry and Louise. The first one showed the couple sitting at their kitchen table—“Sometime in the future,”  the opening screen shot indicated—with a big calculator and stacks of papers that represented were medical bills.

Louise: I thought this was covered under our old plan.

Harry: Oh yeah, that was a good one, wasn’t it?

Ominous male voice off screen: Things are changing and not all for the better. The government may force us to pick from a few plans designed by government bureaucrats.

Louise: Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all.

Harry: If they choose…

Louise:  We lose.

I recently talked about the Harry and Louise spots with one of the consultants who was trying to sell the public on the Clinton plan. He told me the campaign caught the Clinton team completely off guard.

“It was devastating,” he told me. “We could never recover after Harry and Louise.”

Twenty years later, the individuals and corporate interests behind the Americans For Prosperity commercials apparently are hoping the same tactics will somehow derail full implementation of ObamaCare — even though ObamaCare has been law now for more than three years.

On January 1, 2014, some of the most important consumer protections will become effective. No longer will insurance companies be able to charge people who’ve been sick more than people who are healthy. Or charge women more than men. And they will not be able to refuse to sell policies to people because of pre-existing conditions or to set a limit on how much they will pay out in claims.

In the first AFP spot, we meet “Julie,” presumably a young mother, who suggests that people will not be able to pick their own doctors under ObamaCare.

“If we can’t pick our own doctor, how do I know my family’s going to get the care they need?” Julie asks.

Then, just like Harry and Louise did two decades ago, Julie raises the specter of big, bad government making decisions and eliminating her choices. “Can I really trust the folks in Washington with my family’s health care?” she asks.

As FactCheck.org pointed out last week, the AFP ad is misleading because the law will not keep Julie—or anyone else for that matter—from picking her own doctors. If anyone will have the ability to limit her choice of providers, it will be insurance company bureaucrats, not government bureaucrats.

Americans For Prosperity, which was founded in 2004, says it will spend $6 million to air the ads in Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Nevada, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico, in addition to Ohio. All are considered battleground states. Which leads one to think that the real agenda here is not so much to keep ObamaCare from being fully implemented as it is to persuade voters to elect politicians next year who will do what David Koch and other AFP benefactors want them to do if and when they take office.

Following a 20-year career as a corporate public relations executive, Wendell Potter left his position as head of communications for CIGNA, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, to show the world the dark inner workings of the insurance industry. He has testified before Senate and House committees, briefed several members of Congress and their staffs, appeared with lawmakers at several press conferences, spoken at more than 100 public forums, and has been the subject of numerous articles in the U.S. and foreign media. His new book is called Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. 

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