OPINION: distorted spin from health insurers and their friendly front groups

SHOUT America claims to represent young folks worried about costs, but don't be fooled

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In my book,  Deadly Spin, I described the PR playbook health insurers, tobacco companies and other special interests use to influence public policy, often by deceptive means.

One tried-and-true tactic is to recruit third parties to help deliver your talking points — hopefully, individuals and organizations that are held in higher regard by the public than your own company or industry.

This is a staple of the insurance industry’s playbook —my former colleagues know that they’re not especially popular.  In fact, internal polls I was privy to as an industry executive showed consistently that health insurers were beloved by the public just slightly more than tobacco companies.

True to form, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the industry’s big PR and lobbying group, has rolled out a slick campaign aimed at getting Congress to gut some of ObamaCare’s most important consumer protections.

 “Time for Affordability” is the name of AHIP’s campaign. Since the official name of ObamaCare is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the idea here is to persuade folks that the word “affordable” does not really apply to the law and that the insurers, long-time champions of affordability that they are, have solutions to fix it.  

Among the patient protections insurers have set their sights on are the ones that prohibit them from selling what many consumer advocates call “junk insurance” and that prohibit them from charging older customers more than three times as much as they charge their younger ones. Insurers’ preference would be for Congress to just get rid of that prohibition entirely. The consolation prize would be for Congress to let them charge older folks 500% more instead of just 300% more. Charging the elderly exorbitant rates is part of a decades-long strategy to make coverage unaffordable for older folks.

 A perfect third-party ally in this fight would be an organization that purports to represent young people. Lo and behold, one has surfaced. It is SHOUT America, founded by Clayton McWhorter, the former CEO of the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the Nashville-based for-profit hospital chain, and headed by Landon Gibbs, a former aide to former President George W. Bush. As several consumer advocates have brought to my attention, SHOUT America is taking out ads using AHIP’s talking points in an online publication well-read inside the D.C. Beltway.

According to SHOUT America’s 2010 federal tax return, the most recent available, its gross income, including membership fees, was $43,915.00. All but $8,640.00 of that went to pay the salary of what appears to be the group’s only full-time employee. SHOUT America’s address in the tony Nashville suburb of Brentwood is the same as that of a venture capital firm, Clayton Associates, the chairman emeritus of which is Clayton McWhorter.

The group must have had a recent infusion of cash to be able to take out ads in POLITICO PULSE, which has become a daily must-read on health care policy for Washington policymakers and opinion leaders.

Here’s text from one of the recent ads: “A message from SHOUT America: Many younger, healthier individuals could be surprised to see the cost of their health insurance increase dramatically, potentially skyrocketing 40 percent or more when new provisions from the Affordable Care Act go into effect in 2014. What's behind this? New federal rating restrictions, including a 3 to 1 limit on the use of age, broader benefits, the health insurance tax, as well as other changes will cause the insurance premiums to increase disproportionately for younger, healthier Americans.”

Now compare that to the first paragraph on AHIP’s “Time for Affordability” website: “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will help millions of people get coverage for the first time, but the new health insurance tax, costly benefit requirements and age rating restrictions will drive up the cost of coverage for many consumers and employers. When this happens, many younger and healthier Americans could decide not to get coverage, which would further drive up costs for everyone else.”

What AHIP and SHOUT America don’t say is that most young people will actually be able to get affordable coverage for the first time when ObamaCare is fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, either through the expansion of Medicaid or the subsidies that will be available for people making up to 400% of the federal poverty level ($43,560 for an individual and $89,400 for a family of four in 2011, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation). This will enable millions of people, young and old alike, to leave the ranks of the uninsured.

Yes, a few relatively well-paid young people will see their premiums go up, but many of their parents, who helped put them through school to get decent-paying jobs, will see them go down.

The status quo that AHIP and friends are trying to preserve works best for a few people, especially insurance company executives whose companies make huge profits by selling junk insurance and gouging older people. It does not work at all for most of the rest of us, and certainly not for most of those young people that SHOUT America claims to represent.