Highlighting Health Care
January 9, 2009
Wide-ranging groups join forces to launch pre-inauguration push for
health care reform.
It has started. A new TV spot is running nationally saying that
"fixing health care" is "something that we must do." It is the
first ad in what we expect will be a massive barrage of public
relations claims on all sides of the coming debate over
President-elect Obama's promised push for expanding federal
health insurance programs.
This one is notable primarily for who is sponsoring it: a
collection of unlikely political bedfellows that includes the
pharmaceutical manufacturer's lobby, the American Medical
Association, the liberal group Families USA and a major labor
We find little to fault in the basic message of this ad, that
"quality, affordable health care" is good for business and good
for the economy. There's no question that healthy workers
produce more than unhealthy workers, and cost businesses less in
absenteeism. Our only complaint is that the ad deals in
generalities and says nothing about how "quality, affordable"
health care can be delivered, or who will pay the cost. Perhaps
the diverse groups sponsoring it can't agree.
If history is any guide, ads to come will be more controversial.
And we'll be watching.
For anyone who thought health care would take a backseat to the
country's major economic woes as President-elect Barack Obama
takes office, a coalition of organizations has a message for
you: Health care
is the economy. This very
diverse group – made up of the American Cancer Society Cancer
Action Network, the American Medical Association, Families USA,
the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America,
Regence BlueCross BlueShield and the Service Employees
International Union – launched a television ad Jan. 8 that aims
to remind both Americans and politicians that healthy workers
(i.e., insured and adequately insured ones) save businesses
money. How exactly those workers get insured and who pays for
it, however, are sticky details these strange bedfellows will
leave for another day. Or not tackle at all as a happy
The ad is the first major salvo in what we expect to be an
intense issue-ad war. Its sponsors say it will appear at least
until Feb. 5 on national cable networks and on local stations in
D.C., and Chicago. At a press
conference announcing the spot, representatives from the groups
would not talk about any specific ideas or proposals they backed
or rejected. Instead, they said their efforts were aimed at
getting health care on the federal government's agenda and
focusing on commonalities they shared. So far, the message is
"Health care reform is a key component to jump-starting our
national economy," said Nancy H. Nielsen, president of the AMA.
"As our new ad makes clear, quality, affordable health care is
good for families and it's good for businesses."
Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical
companies' association, said that while people will stress that
we have to tackle the economy first, the coalition is saying:
"This is the economy."
We dispute none of the factual claims in the ad, to the extent
that it makes any. It says generally that "quality, affordable
health care can save money and make businesses more
competitive." The sponsors reason quite logically that people
with health insurance are healthier than the uninsured, that
healthy workers are productive workers, and that more
productivity is better for business.
Studies have shown, as Nielsen said, that "the uninsured
live sicker and die younger" than those with health coverage.
The uninsured are more likely to skip or delay needed care,
forgo prevention treatment and be hospitalized for something
that was avoidable,
according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And they have
higher mortality rates.
Back in 2003, the
of the National Academies
that the societal benefits of covering the uninsured "are likely
greater than" the added costs to society. It also determined
that the potential economic value from covering all Americans
was between $65 billion and $130 billion a year. A
more recent report, from the New America Foundation in 2008,
reached a similar verdict: "The economic cost of failing to fix
our broken health care system is greater than the upfront
expense of comprehensive health reform. In 2006, our economy
lost as much as $200 billion because of the poor health and
shorter lifespan of the uninsured."
Tauzin cited a 2007
study by the Milken Institute, and funded by his
organization, that found common chronic diseases had an impact
on the U.S. economy, both in real dollars
and lost productivity. The Milken study found that seven chronic
diseases had a $1.3 trillion impact on the economy annually,
with the majority of that figure, $1.1 trillion, in the form of
lost productivity. The study didn't call for universal health
care as a fix, and some of the diseases could be mitigated with
public health measures even without addressing insurance. But
the Milken report did say that improving people's health, by
increasing prevention efforts and early intervention, and
reducing obesity rates – all things that could come about with a
solid health plan – would lower costs and boost workers' output.
The ad ends by saying that "quality, affordable health care" is
"not just something we should do for America's families. It's something
we must do for
America's economy." Hours after
the group launched the ad, Barack Obama mentioned health care in
what was billed as a major speech on the economy, pushing for
electronic medical records and echoing the words of Nielsen in
saying that an investment in health care (along with energy and
education) "will jump-start economic growth."
An Issue for All?
We're not too surprised by the emergence of an odd collection of
organizations pushing for health care changes – at least
incredibly general changes. This group includes doctors, a
pharmaceutical company rep, a labor union, a consumer advocate
and an insurance company, but it's not the first such grab-bag
Divided We Fail, which was active during the election,
brought together the same labor union, a small-business
association and the AARP. Back in early 2007, 16 groups
announced that they had joined hands to form the Health
Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, which, after meeting for
two years, had come up with a proposal to expand health
coverage. (Of course, that 2007 press release was the only one
the group ever issued.)
Will 2009 bring any meatier messages from a broad coalition than
the general idea that health care needs help? That remains to be
seen. We'll be watching.
– by Lori Robertson