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Wendell Potter

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Losing the PR War -- Again

Posted: 11/07/11 09:19 AM ET

Support for ObamaCare has fallen to just 34 percent of the American public, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's most recent tracking poll. That's down from 41 percent in just one month.

Can't say I'm surprised. Just as they did during the debate on health care reform in 2009 and 2010, the special interests who profit from the status quo have been winning the messaging battle in their ongoing effort to scare people away from the new law. They have a well-planned and executed strategy to mislead people so thoroughly they will vote next year for candidates who promise to repeal the law, even if that means they will be voting against their own best interests. The strategy of the law's backers -- if indeed there is one -- is simply not working.

One reason reform advocates cite for the decline in support: relentless attacks on the law by GOP presidential candidates, especially during those free-for-all debates. At one of the recent get-togethers, Newt Gingrich even resurrected the biggest of the big lies -- that the law creates government-run death plans that will decide when to pull the plug on sick Medicare beneficiaries. Supporters can't expect debate moderators to challenge the candidates on such baseless accusations, and they don't have comparable forums to communicate how the law is helping millions of Americans. At least not yet.

Another factor in falling support for ObamaCare is that opponents are out-dueling supporters in placement of op-ed commentaries and letters to the editor. While I haven't seen detailed analyses of the op-ed placement war, my own observation, as someone who reads a lot of newspapers, is that the critics have gotten way more ink than the fans.

That doesn't surprise me, either. During my years as a health insurance industry PR guy, I helped craft and implement plans that involved recruiting seemingly ordinary folks to send letters and op-eds that had actually been written by industry flacks.

Lies about the reform law have also gone viral on the Internet. That's not new, but it appears from emails friends and acquaintances forward to me that the dissemination of bogus information has picked up.

A few days ago a friend in Alabama passed along one such email with the subject line: "What a Bombshell!"

The stop-the-presses news was about the results of a survey by the United Nations International Health Organization that had supposedly just been published by Investors Business Daily. It revealed that people who live in England and Canada fare much worse than Americans when it comes to surviving cancer, being treated for diabetes, getting a hip replacement when needed and getting an appointment with a specialist.

The inference, of course, was that the reform law would lead to a rapid deterioration in access to quality medical care.

Well, it turns out that there is no such entity as the United Nations International Health Organization and no evidence that such a survey was published by Investors Business Daily. Editorially, that newspaper has been a critic of reform, so it was plausible, but a search failed to turn up such a story.

Another big problem with the "bombshell" is that ObamaCare creates nothing like the single-payer health care systems in England and Canada. In fact, to the great disappointment of many reform advocates, the law gives the uniquely American multi-payer system, controlled by large for-profit insurance corporations, a new lease on life.

The alleged "bombshell" has been circulating in the ether for two years. While it's unclear who first sent it, I was able to find versions of it dating back to 2009.

It is true that in a number of measures, the U.S. does do better than other developed countries, including England and Canada. But it is also true that we do far, far worse in many other measures, and we are falling further behind.

That was borne out in the results of a real report by the Commonwealth Fund. The authors of the Fund's "National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2011" wrote that "access to health care (has) significantly eroded since 2006. As of 2010, more than 81 million working-age adults were uninsured or underinsured, up from 61 million in 2003. Further, the U.S. failed to keep pace with gains in health outcomes achieved by the leading countries. The U.S. ranks last out of 16 industrialized countries on a measure of mortality amenable to medical care (deaths that might have been prevented with timely and effective care), with premature death rates that are dramatically worse than in the best performing countries. Some 91,000 fewer people would die prematurely if the U.S. could match the rates in leading nations."

The Commonwealth Fund report hasn't gone viral. But it should. And supporters of reform better get on the stick and pay attention to what opponents are doing if they expect the reform law to be implemented as Congress intended.

 
 
 

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