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Swiftboating Health Care Reform

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

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Yesterday, immediately following NBC's Meet the Press, the right-wing group Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR) aired a 30-minute paid advertisement titled "The End of Patients' Rights: The Human Consequences of Government Run Health Care." Hosted by former CNN reporter Gene Randall, the program featured "horror stories" aimed at chipping away public support for reforming the U.S. health care system. As Fox News explained, "the new infomercial, despite the 'paid programming' label in the upper-left hand corner of the screen, had the appearance of a '60 Minutes' special" -- without the credibility, of course. The disgraced former CEO of Columbia/HCA Healthcare and now chairman of CPR, Rick Scott, appeared multiple times in the program warning that health care reform would result in the rationing of care, long waiting lists, and diminished quality. CPR's ad was premised on the false notion that "certain nefarious Democrats want to import British and Canadian health care into the United States." But as Wonk Room health care blogger Igor Volsky has noted, "CPR conflates deficiencies of the foreign health care systems with American reform efforts, but fails to cite a single Democrat who would want to copy-and-paste the British or Canadian examples." CPR's infomercial "presents the Democrats' reforms not as they are, but as conservatives wish for them to be," and as such, spends time warning Americans about the so-called "horror stories" of foreign health care system on which they will never have to rely.

A HISTORY OF FRAUD: If CPR wants to appear credible, it is indeed strange that Scott is such a prominent feature of its campaign against health care reform. As Progressive Media documented in a video report on Scott's history (view the short video here), Scott is "credited with transforming the American health care system into the profit above-all-else culture that is currently plaguing America." In his zealous attempt to turn his former company Columbia/HCA into the "McDonald's" of the health care industry, Scott's company "increased Medicare billings by exaggerating the seriousness of the illnesses they were treating," "granted doctors partnerships in company hospitals as a kickback for the doctors referring patients to HCA," and "gave doctors 'loans' that were never expected to be paid back, free rent, free office furniture, and free drugs from hospital pharmacies." The government pursued Scott's company in a seven-year fraud investigation that resulted in Columbia/HCA being fined $1.7 billion. While the fraud was illegal, the real horror stories came out of the abusive and negligent ways in which Columbia/HCA hospitals treated patients. ABC News reported in 1993 that nursing staffs were reduced in size to save costs, but resulted in newborns being "attended as infrequently as every three hours. Once, the only nurse caring for seven ill infants was so busy she failed to hear an alarm when a baby stopped breathing." In a hospital run by Columbia/HCA in California, employees protested "filthy conditions," while hospital staffers in Florida complained that "gloves come in only one size, and rip easily." Despite this, CPR's documentary touted Scott's background as CEO of Columbia/HCA saying, "under his leadership...Columbia had the lowest cost per patient of any category of hospital." Scott's tenure as head of Columbia/HCA is a prime example of what Americans can expect from their health care system in the future of so-called "free market" health care advocates win out.

SWIFTBOATING HEALTH CARE REFORM: To coordinate its attack on health care reform, CPR hired CRC Public Relations, the group "that masterminded the 'Swift Boat' attacks against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry." CRC is reportedly using as a model the "'Harry and Louise' ads that helped torpedo health-care reform during the Clinton administration." As in the Swift Boat campaign, CPR's anti-reform campaign is well-financed and is misleading the public. Indeed, in March and April, the group spent $1.2 million on ads, with another $1 million spent in May alone. In all, the group has been seeded with millions from Scott's personal fortune. As for the group's apparent distaste for honest debate, their campaign is rife with warnings that health care reformers are determined to emulate the health care systems of Great Britain and Canada for use in the U.S. But as Volsky notes, "Most policy makers are looking for a 'uniquely American solution' that preserves the employer-sponsored system and creates a hybrid public-private partnership." The system would leave the "provision of health care...in private hands" and create a marketplace within which public and private insurers can compete on price while insuring the sickest patients. Fundamentally, however, CPR's fear mongering about single-payer health care systems is dishonest. As Jonathan Cohn explains in his book Sick, "The stories about Canada are wildly exaggerated. And the pinched access to services in Britain, at least, isn't a product of universal health care. It's a product of universal health care on the cheap." "The British spend just 7 percent of their national wealth on health care, less than half of what Americans spend. It's possible to spend more than that--and get more--while still spending less than the United States does. A perfect example is Japan. Relative to the United States, Japan spends about 60 percent as much of its wealth on health care. But the Japanese don't wait for medical services. ... Japan leads the world in the availability of technology such as CT scanners and MRI machines," Cohn writes. As Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein notes, despite there being wait times for non-essential care in Britain, the outcomes for care do not appear to be worse.

EMBRACED BY THE RIGHT WING: Klein recently remarked that Scott's high-profile defense of the health care status quo was akin to former President Bush "tasking Donald Rumsfeld with a comprehensive defense of his administration's legacy." Indeed, despite Scott's well-known history as a health care fraudster, the right wing appears to be wholeheartedly embracing him, his organization, and his message. In recent weeks, Scott has been hosted at an "influential weekly breakfast organized by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist." The right-wing National Review promoted CPR's ad campaign and interviewed Scott at length without ever noting his background. Fox News hosted Scott multiple times in recent months before they disclosed his controversial past. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) "invited Mr. Scott to meet with him on Tuesday because he liked what Mr. Scott had been saying." It's clear why the right has embraced Scott. While he's yet to use such language in his current attempt to scuttle reform, in 1993 he vowed to do "everything I can" to defeat Clinton's health care proposal. But while conservatives are getting on board with Scott, the Washington Post explains that, "for the moment," his campaign is relatively independent of "major insurers, hospitals and other health-care providers" because such stake holders have hopes of working with President Obama and the Congress to constructively "shap[e] the outcome of a final reform package." Indeed, a senior executive with the insurance industry organization that ran the "Harry and Louise" ads which helped stop former President Clinton's attempts at health care reform told the New York Times, "I just don't understand why he would be a messenger people would listen to. I don't think people are waiting to hear from him."