Astroturf Organizing Heats up Debate

In the August heat, lawmakers are back home talking with constituents about health care reform.  At Town Hall Meetings, the heat is turned up by individuals who sole focus is preventing that civil discourse.  News reports of lawmakers shouted down at town hall meetings capture more airtime than reports on the details of the health care reform proposals.  And we hear the incredible myths about reform plans - Obama wants to kill your grandparents, Obama will ban private insurance, Obama will ration care…and so on.

Groups such as Freedom Works, Patients First, Recess Rally, Tea Party Patriots and Operation Embarrass Your Congressman are behind the organized protests.  They are conducting what is known as Astroturf Lobbying.  Just as astroturf resembles real grass, astroturf lobbying may look like genuine grass-roots lobbying but is created and funded by corporations, industry trade associations, and public relations firms.

During the Clinton Administration, front groups like “Rx Partners” and “Coalition for Health Insurance Choices” fought against health care reform.  Both groups were created by public relations firms.  Today, fact-checking groups like Media Matters find that industry representatives serve on the boards of the organizations out to defeat health care reform.

Recently a former heath insurance corporate executive confirmed the insurance industry’s efforts to scare Americans away from meaningful health care reform.  Wendell Potter was a long-time executive with one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies. 

Wendell realized he was on the wrong side of the health care reform debate after witnessing Americans waiting in long lines to get much needed free health care.  He observed that many in line thought they had decent health insurance until they got sick and were “purged” by their insurer.  Others were told by their insurer to seek charity care and others simply could not afford health care coverage

In a Public Television interview with Bill Moyers, Wendell shared the insurance industry strategy to create fear of reform:  “ The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that you're heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years, to keep that from happening.”


Wendell continued: “ …A lot of money in this country is made off of sick people...The industry doesn't want to have any competitor. In fact, over the course of the last few years, has been shrinking the number of competitors through a lot of acquisitions and mergers. So first of all, they don't want any more competition period. They certainly don't want it from a government plan that might be operating more efficiently than they operate.”

During the interview, Bill Moyers shared a memo, written by republican strategist Frank Luntz, discussing strategy to discredit those working to reform health care : I have a memo written by Frank Luntz who we discovered, in the spring, has written the script for opponents of health care reform. "First," he says, "you have to pretend to support it. Then use phrases like, "government takeover," "delayed care is denied care," "consequences of rationing," "bureaucrats, not doctors prescribing medicine."

Wendell explained the strategy is to attack health care reform legislation, to kill it and maintain the status quo; “The strategy is as it was in 1993 and '94, to conduct this charm offensive on the surface. But behind the scenes, to use front groups and third-party advocates and ideological allies. And those on Capitol Hill who are aligned with them, philosophically, to do the dirty work. To demean and scare people about a government-run plan, try to make people not even remember that Medicare, their Medicare program, is a government-run plan that has operated a lot more efficiently.”  To achieve “success” Wendell noted the insurance industry is spending millions of dollars to scare people away from any government involvement in health care.

The health care reform battle is not new and the insurance industry scare tactics are well practiced.  While the foes and their message sound familiar, we must not fall for the fear tactics, we must not settle for the status quo, we must move forward on health care reform.

As Wendell Potter wrote: “Remember Congress: while you are on vacation, 150,000 Americans will lose their insurance, many of them will file for bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills and at least 1,500 will die because they don’t have coverage that gives them access to care they need.”