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No Rest for Health Care Lobbyists

After spending the past year pushing relentlessly to get health care legislation over the finish line, Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, might be tempted to take a break.

Instead, Pollack is looking ahead to the task of implementing the complicated reform law that will involve enrolling more than 32 million Americans in health care plans. So, he’s starting a new venture called Enroll America to help people navigate the new rules.

“We’re going to try and make this as user-friendly as possible,” said Pollack, who attended President Barack Obama’s White House signing of the health care bill this week.

Pollack is just one of the many activists on both sides of the health care issue who have no plans to disappear even as the Congressional fight over health care may be finally coming to a close. Some advocacy groups will focus on the November elections, while others will deal with the substance of the new law.

Pollack said his new organization would be set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that would be a collaborative effort involving drug and insurance companies as well hospitals and community centers.

“It will include some strange bedfellows,” Pollack said, noting that he already sat down with Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans.

AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach confirmed that his industry group would participate in Enroll America.

Pollack does not intend to step down from his position at Families USA, but he will play a role in overseeing the new group, which he intends to exist for about two years.

He said Families USA will also continue to be involved in health care reform, pivoting from lobbying Congress to spearheading a public education program. The group intends to hold what Pollack called “media-centric events” around the country to explain the massive health care overhaul.

While Pollack’s new group will approach health care from the consumers’ point of view, another coalition will be working with health care providers to smooth the implementation of the new law.

The Partnership for Quality Care includes the Service Employees International Union, the largest union of health care workers, as well as medical providers such as Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West and the Greater New York Hospital Association.

“We dealt with the issue of insurance reform. Now we have to deal with the way care is delivered,” said Dennis Rivera, chairman of the Partnership for Quality Care and SEIU Healthcare.

Rivera said the union is also undertaking the formidable task of trying to explain the law to the public.

“We have massive confusion about what is in the bill,” he said. “We have to fill that gap.”

A number of groups that have been active in the health care fight will now likely segue into more campaign-oriented activities as the midterm elections approach.

SEIU leaders have made it clear that they intend not only to work for lawmakers who voted for the health care overhaul but also against Democrats who opposed the bill.

“There are Members who need to know working families will no longer have their backs,” SEIU spokeswoman Lori Lodes said.

She said that in some cases, the union will back primary challengers or third-party challengers against Democrats who initially campaigned for health care reform but opposed the final bill. For example, she said a New York local unit of SEIU has indicated it will back a third-party or primary challenge to Rep. Michael Arcuri (D), who voted against the health care bill.

SEIU also launched a $700,000 weeklong ad buy Wednesday in six Congressional districts thanking lawmakers for supporting health care. The spots will run in the districts of Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Dina Titus (Nev.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), John Boccieri (Ohio), Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.).

Conservative and business coalitions formed to oppose the measure also say they aren’t going away.

“We’re reloading. The battle is far from over,” said Bob Adams of the League of American Voters, a conservative group that ran ads targeting lawmakers on health care. Although there are no ads planned right now, Adams said his group will continue reminding voters between now and the November elections how their lawmakers stood on the health care bill.

Business groups, which poured millions of dollars into defeating the Democratic health care bill, are also trying to figure out how to respond to the legislation’s passage.

“We will continue to play in this sandbox and see if we can make this bad thing less bad,” said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and manager of the StartOver Coalition of 250 business groups.

West said businesses may keep pushing for legislation over the year to clean up what they believe are mistakes in the new law.

“It will depend on what we think is doable,” she said. “I’m not sure how much we can do until the dust settles.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which led the charge against the bill, has already indicated it intends to spend considerable resources in this election year aimed at reversing some of the health care changes.

In the meantime, the business groups are continuing to lobby on the reconciliation measure being considered by the Senate.

The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors sent a letter Wednesday to Senate leaders urging them to support an amendment by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) that would strike a provision that would penalize employers with more than 50 workers if they do not offer health insurance.

The letter said the fines in the reconciliation measure were greater than the penalties in the original Senate bill. Both the NAWD and the chamber said they would consider the vote on the Enzi amendment a key vote for the 111th Congress.

However, a coalition of liberal groups led by the union-backed Health Care for America Now on Wednesday pressed Democratic Senators to refrain from voting for any Republican amendments so the final bill can reach the president’s desk.

HCAN has been one of the most active players in the health care debate, spending $47 million, with $15 million on ads alone, over the last two years to back the health care measure.

With the Congressional battle almost over, HCAN will be downsizing. Unlike some of the other health care advocates, Richard Kirsch, the group’s national campaign manager, will not be sticking around Washington, D.C. He’s returning to his home in upstate New York. Nevertheless, Kirsch said the coalition plans to remain active on a more limited scale to educate voters on which lawmakers supported or opposed health care reform.

“The steering committee felt that the political narrative is important so that 2010 is known not for the rejection of health care but the implementation of health care,” he said.

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