Better Messaging is the Key to Winning Health Care

09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In order to pass a robust health care bill, Democrats need to re-frame the debate with a strong, disciplined messaging campaign. They have the power, the truth, and public approval on their side, but they're slacking badly on messaging, and it's putting reform in jeopardy.

Republicans and industry groups, meanwhile, have permeated the debate with a flurry of disinformation and outright lies. They've somewhat succeeded in slandering the reform as anti-capitalist, blighting it with idioms like "big government," "socialism," "death panels," and so on.

The reaction among leading reformers has had a deer-in-the-headlights ring. It's odd that President Obama didn't see this coming because he usually knows his history, and these despicable tactics have been repeatedly used to kill health care reform for nearly a century, each time preying on people's political prejudices and limited knowledge.

But it's not too late, and Obama can still turn this around -- with better messaging.

Unhinged free-market worship, combined with an inexplicable paranoia for anything government, is what's driving the opposition. So Obama and Democrats need to re-frame this bill -- particularly the public option -- as one that embraces capitalism's best principles.

The central message should be that this bill will increase choice and competition in the marketplace, which would lower costs and extend coverage. This is language that Americans of all political persuasions understand, and it would considerably help quell the senseless fears among conservatives and some moderates about any kind of "government takeover" of the system.

A recent poll reveals that when told that the public plan is merely a "choice," a whopping 77 percent of Americans support it. The number shrinks when it's presented as the "Obama health care plan," which means the propaganda has been quite successful.

So, why not change the name of the bill? "Health Security Act" has no ring to it; call it the "Health Care Free Choice Act." That'll take the opposition to task and put them on the defensive.

A crucial point Democrats need to drive home is that inaction will lead to economic ruin for the country and financial insolvency for more and more individuals, families and businesses. It will. The out-of-control health care costs are the primary cause of the surging budget deficit, as well as bankruptcies, which are literally rising by the minute.

The GOP calls this reform plan an "experiment" -- nefariously suggesting that it could go very, very wrong. But the real experiment would be to embrace the status quo, simply to assume private insurers will shape up and fix the system without any real pressure. Democrats need to make this abundantly clear.

The main reason health care costs are skyrocketing -- and worsening the deficit -- is that insurance executives realized they can use their virtual monopoly power to make higher profits by refusing to provide care for sick customers even if they've fully paid their premiums. That's where much of the excessive costs are going.

Insurers insist that premiums have risen in proportion to provider costs. But this is glaringly dishonest -- insurer profits have risen alongside higher premiums, making it clear that the reason regular people are paying exorbitant prices is so insurance executives and shareholders can line their pockets.

A public option will keep this in check. It's the ideal market-oriented solution that would bring down costs, extend coverage, increase quality and improve efficiency. It would motivate private insurers to clean up their act and realize that profits should be based on providing quality services at reasonable prices -- not shady boardroom tactics that fleece people.

The New York Times says the public plan is "not indispensable," that stronger insurance regulations can solve most of these problems. But this sounds like icing a broken leg that needs surgery. Insurers might behave themselves for a while, but eventually they'll sneak in loopholes to derail those rules, and return to their old ways.

And that's why a public option is critical if Democrats want a real, substantive victory for health care, rather than merely a shallow political victory. The tell-all as to how badly the negotiations are going so far is the insurance industry's reaction to them: "Hallelujah!"

Make no mistake, there is no such thing as worthy reform that doesn't infuriate insurance executives.

It's sad that this is so tough, that Democrats continue to get bullied by Republicans despite thrashing them in the last two elections. But their silver lining is the sheer silliness of most Republican talking points on health care. By positioning the public option as a market-based solution to the system's problems, the opposition can be defeated on its own turf.

Now, with much of America's economic and health future riding on this bill, let's see if Democrats can rise to the challenge and be effective champions for truth and common sense.

Listen to Sahil Kapur's recent radio interview on Talk 1410AM about the health care battle.