Healthcare law backers plan counteroffensive


After months of being pummeled by Republican attacks on the new healthcare law, the Obama administration and its allies are striking back in an attempt to stem public disaffection with the health overhaul ahead of the November election.

A nationwide, multimillion-dollar ad offensive — organized in consultation with the White House and funded by sympathetic groups and wealthy individual donors — is set to kick off in the coming days. At the same time, dozens of leading consumer advocates, patient associations and medical groups, working independently and alongside the Obama administration, are scrambling to put together initiatives to tout the law’s benefits.

Healthcare: An article in Thursday’s Section A about a nationwide advertising campaign supporting the new healthcare law said that the Service Employees International Union had pledged $54 million to support Democratic candidates. The correct figure is $44 million. —

The effort is up against an intense Republican campaign that has painted the healthcare bill as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Democratic-dominated Washington.

GOP candidates and interest groups have flooded television markets with ads attacking “Obamacare,” as critics derisively label the legislation. Supporters of the law have been outspent 4 to 1 since the spring.

A new Republican group started by Karl Rove is pressing the advantage with a $3.2-million ad campaign targeting five Democratic Senate candidates on healthcare, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

And at least four Democrats running in conservative House districts have aired ads highlighting their votes against the healthcare overhaul.

“All you have to do is say the words ‘Obamacare’ or ‘the healthcare bill,’ attach it to your opponent, and it’s a boat anchor,” said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist who leads Americans for Tax Reform.

Persistent public resistance to the bill has surprised many backers of the health overhaul.

“I think a lot of people thought it would be a lot easier to sell the law after it passed,” said Celinda Lake, an influential Democratic pollster. “But Democrats can’t hide from this.... We need to have a strong message about the new law.”

Supporters of the healthcare overhaul think Americans will warm to the law when they begin to see benefits this fall — such as expanded coverage for young adults, an end to preexisting condition exclusions for children and greater access to preventive services.

“Ensuring Americans understand how [the law] benefits them is a critical step in making it a reality for all,” said Stephanie Cutter, who is heading the administration’s healthcare campaign.

Families USA health policy director Kathleen Stoll said the consumer group was increasingly fielding questions at its forums from people interested in learning about the law’s benefits, rather than attacking it.

But a recent survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of the country’s seniors think — erroneously — that the law creates a new government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff noted that voters also still think the law will lead to higher health costs, taxes and deficit spending, and lower quality of care — impressions that provide a clear advantage to Republicans.

Now, nearly six months after the legislative debate ended, Republicans are capitalizing on public misgivings by linking the law to other sources of voter anxiety, such as government spending and the poor economy.

The latest ad campaign from the Rove-founded Crossroads GPS group charges Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan with “siding with lobbyists, big unions and Washington insiders to force Obamacare on us.” The group is also targeting Democrats in Pennsylvania, California and Kentucky.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is buying more ads to attack the law. And GOP candidates for state and national offices have gone after the overhaul on television in nearly every broadcast market, moving far ahead of the law’s supporters.

“There has been a huge imbalance,” said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of Kantar Media that tracks political advertising.

Since the bill passed in March, $23.3 million has been spent on ads attacking the law, compared with $6.3 million supporting the legislation, Tracey said. About a third of the opposition ads have used the phrase “Obamacare.”

Some of the work to even out the fight has already begun.

The Service Employees International Union pledged $54 million in part to support moderate, vulnerable Democrats from swing districts who backed the healthcare legislation.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of liberal groups that played a pivotal role in passing the bill, has opened field offices in 14 states to help so-called frontline Democratic lawmakers.

“The message in the fall will be letting voters know which side candidates were on.... Did they stand up for consumers or did they take the side of the insurance industry,” said the coalition’s executive director, Ethan Rome.

The effort may get a major boost in the next week from new ads by the Health Information Campaign, a tax-exempt group run by activists close to the Obama administration. Andrew Grossman, the strategist heading the campaign, has said he hopes to spend $125 million over the next five years.

The White House is also working with interest groups to plan events across the country on Sept. 23 to mark the six-month anniversary of the bill’s signing. President Obama plans to headline at least one such event.

Among those also planning initiatives are nonpartisan groups such as AARP, the American Heart Assn., the American Medical Assn. and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

“It’s safe to say this is the biggest education campaign that we have ever done,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, who is leading one effort.

At the state level, dozens of community organizations are also spreading the message. Activists in Minnesota are knocking on doors and helping small businesses sign up for new tax incentives in the healthcare law.

And around the country, nonprofit funders such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Endowment and the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on education about the new law.

“The lack of understanding is just shocking,” said California Endowment Vice President Daniel Zingale.