Stung by poll after poll showing them steadily losing ground on the debate over healthcare, Democrats are launching an all-out counterattack aimed at portraying health insurance firms as "villains" and "immoral."
The president rolled out the new strategy of scapegoating insurance companies during his town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday,
"The truth is we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you," Obama told his audience. "What we need, and what we will have when we pass these reforms, are health insurance consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and insurance companies are held accountable."
The obvious implication: Health insurance companies have been acting irresponsibly and can't be trusted.
Obama then recounted the emotional story of his mother's final days in her battle against cancer "worrying about whether her insurer would claim her illness was a preexisting condition so it could get out of providing coverage."
"How many of you have worried about the same thing?" Obama said. "How many of you have been denied insurance or heard of someone who was denied insurance because they have a pre-existing condition? That will no longer be allowed."
Obama's diatribe probably sounds disingenuous to those who have followed the issue closely. It's been a moot point since the America's Health Insurance Plans trade group agreed last year to guarantee coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions. But Obama obviously still finds it useful.
Obama's remarks were mild, however, compared with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's broadside Thursday.
"They are the villains in this," Pelosi told reporters of private insurers. "They have been part of the problem in a major way. They are doing everything in their power to stop a public option from happening. And the public has to know that. They can disguise their arguments any way they want, but the fact is that they don't want the competition."
With those words, Pelosi ordered House Democrats to return to their home districts during the summer break and take the offensive, portraying insurance firms as "villains" to justify the public option in healthcare reform.
Said Pelosi: "Our members have to go out there ready to take on a big special interest that has not made our country healthier, has made costs spiral upward, and for whom that is coming to an end."
She also characterized the behavior of health insurance companies as "almost immoral."
Painting the insurance companies as evildoers in order to sell healthcare reform is ironic, given that the insurance companies have bent over backward to avoid a confrontation with Obama and other Democrats during this latest round of healthcare reform.
"In stark contrast to the healthcare reform debate in the 1990s," reports The Hill, "the health insurance industry has refrained from launching attacks on Obama or the plans working their way through Congress. Insurance lobbyists have been very active on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue trying to shape the legislations, but so far the industry has not used its considerable resources to stop the process, despite numerous Democratic proposals it opposes."
Why then the all-out attack on an industry that directly employs close to half a million people? One insurance-industry executive suggested that Democrats are growing desperate to stem the tide of a series of negative polls, observing, "As their poll numbers go down, their rhetoric ratchets up."
A New York Times/CBS poll published Thursday, for example, reported that 77 percent of voters expect their healthcare costs to rise after healthcare reform is enacted, and 76 percent expect it to lead to higher taxes. Seventy-three percent believe the Democratic plans would limit their access to tests and treatment, and 69 percent say it will hurt the quality of healthcare they receive.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer confessed Thursday that Democrats have been losing the war of words "a little bit" over healthcare reform based on the steady drubbing in the opinion polls.
The Obama White House conducts extensive polling of its own, however, and those polls show that heaping blame on the insurance companies might be just the antidote to the public's antipathy toward public option reform.
The Washington Post reports that Obama pollster Joel Benenson inadvertently pulled back the veil on Obama's strategy to scapegoat the insurance companies in remarks last month before the Economic Club of Canada.
Benenson told the group that polls helped the White House figure out "that people like the idea of competition versus the insurance company, and that's why you get a number like 72 percent supporting it."
The polling explains Obama's frequent refrain that the public option plan will "compete" with private insurance companies in order to "keep them honest." Again, the implication being that that private insurers have been somehow dishonest, and need policing.
Public option proponents also contend that taxpayer-subsidized healthcare plans will increase, rather than decrease, the number of companies competing in the marketplace. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., has predicted that in fact a government-subsidized public option would doom the nation's private insurance sector within five years.
In his address, Benenson used language very similar to Pelosi's, telling the Canadian economists that his poll data show consumers "think the insurance companies have been the villains here, not the government."
Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, issued a measured statement Thursday responding to Pelosi's attack. "Healthcare reform is far too important to be dragged down by divisive political rhetoric from Washington, D.C.," he stated.
What Zirkelbach did not mention is that the attacks against insurance companies are coming primarily from two individuals: Obama and Pelosi.
The insurance group's response said: "Countless physicians, hospitals and employers, and millions of concerned citizens agree that a government-run healthcare plan will dismantle employer-based coverage, bankrupt local hospitals, and break the promise made to the American people that those who like their health plan can keep it."
Zirkelbach added, "Health plans remain committed to working constructively in support of bipartisan healthcare reform."
The White House and Pelosi appeared to reach a compromise with blue dog Democrats that would water down the public option. But a session to mark up a final draft of the bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee was postponed after the party's liberal wing threatened to revolt if the public option wasn't restored.
That highlights one of the ironies of the administration's campaign to paint insurance companies as the bad guys: The primary opposition to the president's plan is coming not from private industry, but rather from the president's own party.
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