Monday, September 7, 2009

Facts Are First Casualty in Health Care Debate

Facts are first casualty in health care debate

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People relying on TV advertising or partisan sources for information about health care legislation in Congress have heard that it will "ration" care to the nation's oldest citizens and hike premiums "95 percent."

Or that Republican voters "might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed health care rationing system." President Obama, meanwhile, has said don't worry, the plan "will be paid for."

Such statements, made in what analysts say is likely to be one of the most expensive issue-oriented campaigns ever, are misleading - if not flat-out wrong.

More than $67 million has been spent on TV advertising on the health care debate so far this year, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, which analyzes TV political advertising, and more misinformation and nastiness is expected when Congress returns next week.

"Definitely, the debate is going to ratchet up," said Keith Appell, a spokesman for the group Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which plans to spend $20 million against the Democrats' health care plans.

Appell works at the public relations agency that represented Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Navy veterans whose attacks on the war record of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., helped doom his campaign.

Big money

While twice as much money has been spent on ads supporting the health care reform plans this year, anti-reform groups "have spent only slightly less than the pro groups" in the past month, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"This is one of those issues where neither side will be underfunded," he said.

Through June 30 of this year, the health care industry - which includes doctors, nurses, HMOs and other groups - had spent more than $263 million to lobby Congress, which is on track to surpass the $484 million it spent in all of 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that charts the influence of money on politics.

"Somebody sitting at home is not able to have their voice heard at any level with the millions of dollars flowing into this debate," said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Changing tone

In recent months, the tone of the advertising has changed from soft-focus and issue-oriented to more direct and political. And misleading.

"If there continues to be a debate over a public option, then the rhetoric is going to get even sharper," Tracey said. "In the fall, you'll see even more targeting of individual members (of Congress) who might be seen as on the fence."

In the contest for influence, opponents of the health care plans have an easier task, Tracey said. "They just have to install doubt in the viewer's mind," he said.

This month, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele sent the "2009 Future of American Health Survey" to Republican voters to gauge their attitudes on health care issues.

Question No. 4 read: "It has been suggested that the government could use voter registration to determine a person's political affiliation, prompting fears that GOP voters might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed health care rationing system. Does this possibility concern you?"

When asked who specifically has "suggested" that Republican voters could be "discriminated against," RNC spokeswoman Katie Wright said "the question was inartfully worded" but did not say who suggested it.

The American Medical Association said the House bill "does not ration medical care or discriminate based on political affiliation."

Rowdy meetings

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee is one of the architects of the House version of the health care bill, said some of the misleading advertising contributed to rowdy town hall meetings this month.

"So much of it has been misleading and designed to disrupt the debate," Miller told The Chronicle. "The efforts of town hall were so you couldn't convey to the public what the bill actually did."

As for how much such efforts stalled the conversation, Miller said: "We shall see."

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