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Health Sector Gets Busy in ’08 Race

With health care reforms quickly becoming a cornerstone of the 2008 White House hopefuls’ domestic proposals, health industry groups and their lobbyists already are trying to make sure candidates in both parties keep their interests in mind along the campaign trail.

And since many of those candidates also happen to be sitting Members of Congress, health care lobbyists have reached out on more immediate legislative matters in the hope that getting a would-be president to champion their cause will help get it over the finish line even before next year.

Candidates from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who developed a health plan in the Bay State, to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and their competitors have put forth outlines of how they would provide insurance for those who don’t have it and deal with rising costs in the sector.

“On every level, health care is intrinsic to every policy challenge facing the domestic world. I think all the candidates, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, get that,” said health care lobbyist Chris Jennings, founder of Jennings Policy Strategies who serves as an informal health adviser to Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Sen. Clinton believes that assuring affordable, accountable and meaningful health care for all Americans should be one of the highest domestic policy priorities.”

On the other side of the aisle, Blank Rome lobbyist David Norcross, who serves as an adviser to the Romney presidential campaign, said Romney’s plan in Massachusetts and a health care initiative in California both showcase “private market involvement” as a hallmark of GOP proposals. Democratic initiatives, he said, are likely to focus more on government programs.

But no matter the proposals, “everybody’s going to acknowledge that the issue is front and center this campaign,” he said.

Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, agreed.

“I think for the first time, really since 1992, the health care coverage issue is going to be part of the policy mix in the presidential race at all levels of the race,” he said. “It already is part of the mix.”

Because of that, Kahn’s industry organization is in the earliest stages of working with a consumer advocacy group, Families USA.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said his group, which does not endorse any candidates, is reaching out to organizations such as Kahn’s to make sure presidential candidates on both sides of the political spectrum keep health care at the top of the agenda. Pollack said he already is working on an effort for this fall to get all of the candidates to take part in public discussions in Washington, D.C., and in the first primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said. “I think this year will be unprecedented in terms of the intensity of the concern over health care.”

When it comes to legislation this year, Missy Jenkins, vice president of federal lobbying for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, said her group, along with a coalition pushing for legislation that would allow for generic versions of biotech drugs, has met with presidential candidates such as Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to discuss the effort.

Clinton, in fact, will appear at a press event today to roll out the Access to Life-Saving Medicine Act, as the bill is known.

“The coalition in support of biogenerics is pleased that some of the presidential hopefuls have seized on this issue of biogenerics,” Jenkins said. “I think it indicates the seriousness on their part to promote good policy. If someone is taking it on at a presidential level, it really does us a lot of good.”

Cecil Wilson, chairman of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, said the physicians’ lobbying group is making sure presidential candidates know it has a plan for health care reform.

Wilson said AMA representatives have ongoing meetings with staff members from the presidential campaigns.

“The pace of this campaign has surprised everyone, but we are ready and we have a plan, which we have been refining over a number of years,” said Wilson, who is participating this week in the AMA’s Washington, D.C., legislative conference. “We’re encouraged that so many candidates are looking at the health care system. This offers an opportunity.”

AMA’s plan calls for a combination of public- and private-sector initiatives to get health coverage for all Americans, he said. Those proposals include tax breaks for people who pay for their own health plans and insurance policies that people take with them from job to job.

AMA is opposed to government-sponsored, single-payer universal coverage.

“We believe everyone should have insurance,” Wilson said. “We do not believe a single-payer plan will work for America.”

David Certner, director of federal affairs for AARP, said his organization is in the beginning phase of mobilizing its local offices in the early primary and caucus states as well as all 50 states during the 2008 election and has started testing messages.

“We have offices in every state, so we will have people involved,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of background research on key areas for us.”

Health care, he added, is an issue that AARP plans to “push as much as possible” with presidential candidates.

A spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association said her group also was in the early stages of coordinating campaign efforts with state hospital associations and member hospitals on the ground. And Mohit Ghose, vice president of public affairs at America’s Health Insurance Plans, said his group already is on the ground working in the states with early presidential contests to make sure candidates understand the issues from AHIP’s perspective.

Like other industry groups, AHIP has sent out its proposals — including one that calls for access to health coverage for all children within three years and most adults in 10 years — to all the declared presidential candidates. AHIP also is part of the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, which has reached out to candidates, Ghose said.

“I think they will reach out to us when they feel the time is appropriate,” Ghose said. “Our role as an industry is to put forward a positive agenda, which we believe will lead to real solutions.”

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