Advertisements Sling Mud on Both Sides of HMO Battle

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Monsters straight out of the movies -- some just as fictitious -- are central characters in this year's advertising war over legislation to regulate health maintenance organizations.

Insurance-industry backed radio commercials depict Sen. Edward Kennedy as a bumbling Dr. Frankenstein calling for scalpel and sutures, only to find his "experiment" in health care reform has created a monster -- a bureaucracy that will raise costs and leave millions without health coverage. Even the author of a study on which that claim is partly based says it's overstated in the ad.

On the other side, television commercials sponsored by organized labor have a real character -- Lynn Pius really is a nurse and she plays one on TV, according to the ad sponsor, the AFL-CIO. The monster she complains about, though -- bureaucratic HMOs that keep patients from getting care they need -- is as exaggerated as the one in Kennedy's "lab."

Ads by both sides represent "the worst of spin," said Drew Altman, president of the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, a research group that follows public opinion on health matters. "The public is likely to be confused and critical facts are likely to be misrepresented," he said.

The ads are a prelude to a showdown this month in Congress over legislation to give HMO patients greater choice of doctors and more control over coverage decisions by their insurers.

The amount being spent by both sides may be as little as one-third the $15 million the health insurance industry spent on the famous "Harry and Louise" commercials that helped thwart President Bill Clinton's 1994 national health insurance legislation.

In the current debate, both sides are advertising on the cheap, running radio and television ads inside the Washington Beltway and in markets targeting key politicians.

"The idea is to give the impression their campaigns are better heeled and much more influential than they really are," Altman said.

That's not the only misleading impression in the ad campaigns. The industry ads exaggerate the impact of legislation on the cost of care and the number of uninsured. On the other side, ads by organized labor and other backers of regulation refuse to acknowledge that costs will go up and some people will lose their insurance.

In addition, the organized labor ads omit a key fact: Many HMOs have already done some of the things Clinton and congressional reformers want.

A misrepresented study

The Frankenstein ads were created for the Health Benefits Coalition, a group of businesses and insurers including Aetna, Cigna and United HealthCare that have spent $2 million in a radio and print ad campaign. It has just started a television ad campaign likening HMO reforms to Clinton's failed 1994 national health insurance plan.

The radio ad features Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Kennedy, a top sponsor of sweeping HMO legislation, leading a nervous aide in a medical experiment gone awry. With horror movie organ music and the clang of a falling medical instrument in the background, Kennedy pronounces his experiment in health reform a success.

"You've stitched together enough new government regulations on HMO to put Washington in control of everyone's health care," says the aide.

Their satisfaction turns to horror when the conversation is interrupted by a groan and the roar of the monster amid a swell in the organ music. "Senator, maybe you've gone too far," the aide says.

"Washington should be careful how it plays doctor," an announcer warns, calling the Kennedy legislation the "most costly big government health care bill" since Clinton's failed 1994 legislation. …