It has started. A new TV spot is running nationally saying that "fixing health care" is "something that we must do." It is the first ad in what we expect will be a massive barrage of public relations claims on all sides of the coming debate over President-elect Obama’s promised push for expanding federal health insurance programs.
This one is notable primarily for who is sponsoring it: a collection of unlikely political bedfellows that includes the pharmaceutical manufacturer’s lobby, the American Medical Association, the liberal group Families USA and a major labor union.
We find little to fault in the basic message of this ad, that "quality, affordable health care" is good for business and good for the economy. There’s no question that healthy workers produce more than unhealthy workers, and cost businesses less in absenteeism. Our only complaint is that the ad deals in generalities and says nothing about how "quality, affordable" health care can be delivered, or who will pay the cost. Perhaps the diverse groups sponsoring it can’t agree.
If history is any guide, ads to come will be more controversial. And we’ll be watching.
For anyone who thought health care would take a backseat to the country’s major economic woes as President-elect Barack Obama takes office, a coalition of organizations has a message for you: Health care is the economy. This very diverse group – made up of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Medical Association, Families USA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Regence BlueCross BlueShield and the Service Employees International Union – launched a television ad Jan. 8 that aims to remind both Americans and politicians that healthy workers (i.e., insured and adequately insured ones) save businesses money. How exactly those workers get insured and who pays for it, however, are sticky details these strange bedfellows will leave for another day. Or not tackle at all as a happy coalition.
Announcer: At a time when American businesses are hurting, why should we worry about fixing health care? Because quality, affordable health care can save money and make businesses more competitive. So they can invest in innovation. Hire back workers. Create jobs. Get the economy working again – for everyone. Quality, affordable health care. It’s not just something we should do for America’s families. It’s something we must do for America’s economy."
The ad is the first major salvo in what we expect to be an intense issue-ad war. Its sponsors say it will appear at least until Feb. 5 on national cable networks and on local stations in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. At a press conference announcing the spot, representatives from the groups would not talk about any specific ideas or proposals they backed or rejected. Instead, they said their efforts were aimed at getting health care on the federal government’s agenda and focusing on commonalities they shared. So far, the message is pretty simple.
"Health care reform is a key component to jump-starting our national economy," said Nancy H. Nielsen, president of the AMA. "As our new ad makes clear, quality, affordable health care is good for families and it’s good for businesses."
Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical companies’ association, said that while people will stress that we have to tackle the economy first, the coalition is saying: "This is the economy."
We dispute none of the factual claims in the ad, to the extent that it makes any. It says generally that "quality, affordable health care can save money and make businesses more competitive." The sponsors reason quite logically that people with health insurance are healthier than the uninsured, that healthy workers are productive workers, and that more productivity is better for business.
Studies have shown, as Nielsen said, that "the uninsured live sicker and die younger" than those with health coverage. The uninsured are more likely to skip or delay needed care, forgo prevention treatment and be hospitalized for something that was avoidable, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And they have higher mortality rates.
Back in 2003, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies concluded that the societal benefits of covering the uninsured "are likely greater than" the added costs to society. It also determined that the potential economic value from covering all Americans was between $65 billion and $130 billion a year. A more recent report, from the New America Foundation in 2008, reached a similar verdict: "The economic cost of failing to fix our broken health care system is greater than the upfront expense of comprehensive health reform. In 2006, our economy lost as much as $200 billion because of the poor health and shorter lifespan of the uninsured."
Tauzin cited a 2007 study by the Milken Institute, and funded by his organization, that found common chronic diseases had an impact on the U.S. economy, both in real dollars and lost productivity. The Milken study found that seven chronic diseases had a $1.3 trillion impact on the economy annually, with the majority of that figure, $1.1 trillion, in the form of lost productivity. The study didn’t call for universal health care as a fix, and some of the diseases could be mitigated with public health measures even without addressing insurance. But the Milken report did say that improving people’s health, by increasing prevention efforts and early intervention, and reducing obesity rates – all things that could come about with a solid health plan – would lower costs and boost workers’ output.
The ad ends by saying that "quality, affordable health care" is "not just something we should do for America’s families. It’s something we must do for America’s economy." Hours after the group launched the ad, Barack Obama mentioned health care in what was billed as a major speech on the economy, pushing for electronic medical records and echoing the words of Nielsen in saying that an investment in health care (along with energy and education) "will jump-start economic growth."
An Issue for All?
We’re not too surprised by the emergence of an odd collection of organizations pushing for health care changes – at least incredibly general changes. This group includes doctors, a pharmaceutical company rep, a labor union, a consumer advocate and an insurance company, but it’s not the first such grab-bag coalition. Divided We Fail, which was active during the election, brought together the same labor union, a small-business association and the AARP. Back in early 2007, 16 groups announced that they had joined hands to form the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, which, after meeting for two years, had come up with a proposal to expand health coverage. (Of course, that 2007 press release was the only one the group ever issued.)
Will 2009 bring any meatier messages from a broad coalition than the general idea that health care needs help? That remains to be seen. We’ll be watching.
– by Lori Robertson
“The Uninsured: A Primer.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Oct. 2008.
“Hidden Costs, Value Lost: Uninsurance in America.” Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 17 June 2003.
Carpenter, Elizabeth and Sarah Axeen. “The Cost of Doing Nothing.” New America Foundation, 13 Nov. 2008.
Annual Economic Impact of Chronic Disease on U.S. Economy Is $1 Trillion, press release. Milken Institute, 2 Oct. 2007.