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Conservatives Try To Prevent Health Care Reform

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Pat Garofalo

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Congress continues to work on a compromise health-care reform proposal, focusing on whether to offer a government-financed public health insurance plan. Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) suggested that "Republicans were open to considering a public plan as an option...as long as it operated under the same rules as private plans." During a press conference on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) emphasized that Democrats were open to all options -- even politically rife ones like raising taxes -- in order to achieve health care reform that would cover every American. "We're putting everything on the table," she said, though she noted that much of the financing could come through spending "more wisely, in terms of prevention, in terms of early intervention, in terms of information technology." Indeed, Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, pledged that the Obama administration's health care plan would be "self-financing and also brings down costs over time both for families and for the federal government." Yet as progressives seek to expand coverage and hold down costs, conservatives and lobbying groups are stonewalling on reform.

LUNTZ MEMO LAYS OUT THE RIGHT-WING STRATEGY: Earlier this month, right-wing pollster Frank Luntz wrote a memo to conservatives laying out the strategy to block Obama's health reform. He advised Republicans to fearmonger that "President Obama wants to put the Washington bureaucrats in charge of healthcare." He also told conservatives to raise the specter of "government rationing care" -- ignoring, of course, that insurance companies routinely ration care, even for their policy holders. Immediately, conservatives adopted Luntz's framing. "We all need to be standing up and saying no to a government takeover of our system," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned last week. Within 48 hours of Luntz's advice to constantly hype the "personalized doctor-patient relationship," Reps. Phil Gingrich (R-GA), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Tom Price (R-GA), and Peter Roskam (R-IL), along with Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Grassley all publicly repeated the vapid patient-doctor talking point. Luntz made no secret that his aim is primarily to obstruct Obama's reform rather than promote a conservative alternative. His suggested wording, he explained, "plays into more favorable Republican territory by protecting individual care while downplays the need for a comprehensive national healthcare plan."

'SWIFTBOATING' HEALTH REFORM: On Saturday, former Obama campaign adviser David Plouffe sent a fundraising appeal asking supporters to help stop the "swiftboating" of health reform. "As we speak, the same people behind the notorious 'swiftboat' ads of 2004 are already pumping millions of dollars into deceptive television ads," Plouffe wrote on behalf of Organizing for America. "Their plan is simple: torpedo healthcare reform before it sees the light of day by scaring the public and distorting the President's approach." Indeed, disgraced former health insurance executive Rick Scott, through his group Conservatives for Patients Rights (CPR), has released fearmongering ads that tell Americans they will "lose control of their own destiny within the medical system" if Obama's reform passes. Growing desperate to stall reform, CPR sent a fundraising letter last week claiming that it had successfully persuaded Comcast to pull ads supporting health reform, paid for by Health Care for America Now (HCAN). The claim is a lie: A HCAN representative told The Wonk Room's Igor Volsky HCAN's ad "will soon return to the airwaves."

INSURANCE COMPANIES AT THE TABLE?: Last Monday, Obama -- flanked by leaders of health insurance companies and lobbying groups -- proclaimed a "watershed" agreement from the insurance groups to "reduce the rate of projected growth in health care costs by 1.5 percentage points a year over the next decade for a total savings of $2 trillion." However, days later, the insurance companies tried to walk back their promises, saying Obama had overstated their commitments. Richard Umbdenstock, the president of the American Hospital Association, wrote to his company's state and local affiliates to "clarify" that "[t]he groups did not support reducing the rate of health spending by 1.5 percentage points annually." However, the letter to Obama signed by Umbdenstock and the other insurance leaders specifically pledged that they would "do [their] part to achieve your Administration's goal of decreasing by 1.5 percentage points the annual health care spending growth rate -- saving $2 trillion or more." The groups' case of cold feet notwithstanding, Obama praised the moves toward compromise during his weekly address this weekend, and touted the House leadership's goal to pass health reform by July. "That's the kind of urgency and determination we need to achieve comprehensive reform by the end of this year. And the reductions in spending the health care community has pledged will help make this reform possible." The Center for American Progress recently released a report showing that "health system modernization could increase productivity growth in health care by 1.5 to 2.0 percentage points annually starting in four to five years," changes that could save $9 trillion over 25 years.