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,"
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
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
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
"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. …