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Insurers Try to Make Their Voices Heard in Health Debate

LEBANON, Pa. — Chris Archibald spent almost an hour Tuesday morning in a line that snaked around several city blocks in this typically tranquil town surrounded by bucolic countryside. The 29-year-old Archibald, who runs his own landscaping company in Hershey, Pa., left his business for a few hours to try to get into a town-hall meeting hosted by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) on the hottest topic of the August recess: health care reform. Archibald was mobilized to attend the forum by grass-roots organizers who work for the health insurance industry.But just as Democrats are having trouble getting their message out on their health care reform plans amid angry crowds that are stealing the show, Archibald didn’t make it into the meeting. The crowd inside was already at capacity, and hundreds of activists remained outside the Harrisburg Area Community College’s Lebanon building, holding signs and debating for the national news TV cameras that had gathered. “I have no problems with my insurance, other than I’d like costs to go down,— said Archibald, who wanted to go to the meeting, in part, to voice his opposition to a government health insurance proposal. His own health plan, he said, is offered by Highmark. “I would like to be able to offer insurance to my employees,— he added. “It kills me to say I don’t.—To help bolster its messaging at a time when Democrats have turned their rhetoric against health insurers, the industry has stepped up its already active grass-roots operations including the Campaign for an American Solution, which reached out to Archibald. The campaign is run by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurers’ main lobbying group.AHIP has 1,300 member companies, and the group is sending out talking points and working to mobilize those companies’ employees, policy-holders and other like-minded people to spread the word. On the ground in Lebanon, AHIP relied on the local expertise of a public affairs firm called the Bravo Group, which has offices in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. According to AHIP organizers, at least two insurance industry employees made it into the Specter meeting. While they did not want to speak on the record, the employees said they planned to send follow-up letters to Specter’s office about finding ways to lower health care costs while not harming quality.David Barnhart of the Locust Street Group, a grass-roots organizing firm retained by AHIP, said that from an organizational standpoint, the rowdiness at some town halls has made the insurers’ message harder to convey.“Our people want to have a discussion and ask questions,— he said. “They’ve found it slightly frustrating, but there’s a lot of real passion out there.— That passion was on display inside Tuesday’s meeting.Tim Trimble, who runs Trimble Associates in Lancaster, Pa., said he woke up at 5:30 a.m. to be in the line before 7 a.m. to get into the meeting, which started at 9:30. “It was too important to miss,— Trimble said in an interview before the event began.Joe Zimmerman, a public school teacher from Lebanon, said he was prompted to attend the event by a mailed invitation from Specter’s office and Zimmerman’s own interest in the health care debate.“I believe in the free market,— he said. He would support some health care reforms, he said, including those that would make it harder for people to sue doctors for medical malpractice. But when it comes to insurance companies, Zimmerman, who has diabetes, said that they shouldn’t be allowed to turn down people for pre-existing conditions.Specter said as much at the meeting. The Senator also recognized that “There’s a lot of anger in America … and a lot of cynicism about Washington.—That anger, on display in Lebanon, may change the subject somewhat from the anti-insurance industry message of the Democrats, but it also is steering the debate into such heated areas as abortion. Some of the town-hall participants said they feared that health reform bills would mean taxpayers would have to foot the bill for abortions. When it comes to specific reform policy matters, Barnhart and the people on the ground working for AHIP are available to answer questions, or sometimes they’re just there to help spread the word about an event or help constituents get in touch with their Members of Congress.“A lot of our folks really said, Where do we go?’— said Beth Leonard, who like Barnhart is a veteran of Democratic field work in make-or-break states such as Iowa. Leonard now runs AHIP’s grass-roots program.One aspect of the job involves updating an Excel spreadsheet that lists all the events across the country, such as Specter’s town hall on Tuesday, that could have served as an opportunity for health plan activists to get their message out. The group’s employees and consultants are tracking events all over the country, and AHIP maintains field operations in 33 states, including Pennsylvania. Town halls account for as little as 10 percent of AHIP’s grass-roots efforts. Leonard’s operation also helps connect individuals with their Members of Congress through a toll-free “patch-through line— that literally patches a constituent through directly to their lawmaker’s phone line.AHIP has come up with its own August recess messaging to help dispute what it says is inaccurate information.It has provided a one-and-a-half page “Town Hall Tips— memo that, unlike the disruptive style of some groups, stresses courtesy over conflict. The memo says to “always address a Member of the House of Representatives as Congressman or Congresswoman, and a Member of the Senate as Senator. Always remain calm, ask your question politely and never raise your voice or yell at the Members of Congress. Thank the Member of Congress for their answer.—The memo also suggests that health plan employees make their message personal. “Personal anecdotes are a very compelling way to make your point. In addition … speak to the positive impact your company has on the local community.—The memo cautions that “people often use very pointed, divisive language directed at health plans and, more specifically, health plan employees. It is important not to take the bait.—AHIP also has sent its members an “August Recess Talking Points— paper that includes such statements as “health care reform is far too important to be dragged down by divisive political rhetoric from Washington, D.C.— and “health plans strongly believe that now is the time for comprehensive, bipartisan health care reform.—

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