Health-care law activists to reach for broad political targets at Supreme Court hearings

March 18, 2012

Expect demonstrators to brandish placards reading “Hands off my health care!” and demanding a repeal of the 2010 health-care law. Expect doctors in white lab coats and patients who have suffered at the hands of insurance companies to hold news conferences lauding the law’s consumer protections and pleading for its preservation.

When the Supreme Court holds three days of hearings on the constitutionality of the law next week, supporters and opponents will be reaching for broader political targets.

Backers see a moment to educate and sell Americans on a law that continues to confuse and divide them, and that has become a key issue in the presidential campaign.

Opponents will direct their energy toward Congress, the potential next front in the fight if the court upholds the law.

“Even if some of the law is [ruled] constitutional, it doesn’t mean it has to stay in place. It can be changed, it can be amended,” said Jennifer Stefano, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the conservative organization Americans for Prosperity and who is organizing several hundred protesters from her state.

The two sides’ differing goals are reflected in the types of events each is planning.

A coalition of several dozen groups in favor of the law, ranging from advocacy organizations such as Families USA and Health Care for America Now to faith leaders, physicians associations and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are seeking to maximize their exposure to media outlets across the country.

They will bring in 27 talk-radio hosts who broadcast to 48 states, setting them up in a building across the street from the court. A steady stream of guests have been scheduled including members of Congress, prominent policy advocates who favor the health-care law, and at least a dozen of whom the activists have dubbed “real people” with stories about how the statute directly benefits them.

They also will be made available to other journalists at a nearby media tent and will headline news conferences on the court steps each morning before the hearings begin.

The plan has the backing of the Obama administration, which recently hosted a meeting to help activists coordinate their efforts.

The SEIU and other groups in the coalition are reaching out to their membership to round out the news conferences with a crowd of placard-waving supporters. But organizers say their emphasis is on creating multiple opportunities for those with the most compelling perspectives to communicate directly with the public.

“The whole purpose is to humanize this,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.

It’s an effort that has kept the group’s director of communications, Dave Lemmon, at his Washington office late into the evening over the past several weeks.

On a recent morning, he sat with another staffer whittling down a list of doctors and nurses interested in speaking at the first morning news conference, which is intended to highlight views from the medical community.

Next came a meeting with a second staffer to look over a draft speech by a young Montana woman whose father died after repeated denials by his insurance company delayed a bone marrow transplant. The appeals process could be considerably streamlined under the health-care law.

A six-year veteran of Families, and a former staffer to various Democratic members of Congress members before that, Lemmon, 45, was all business as he suggested edits.

Then he came to the part where the woman described her father’s growing desperation as his appeals stalled.

Lemmon sighed and shook his head. “This one really does tear at the heartstrings,” he said in a softer tone.

In contrast, opponents will largely concentrate their firepower on one major demonstration. These groups — including an assortment of tea-party-affiliated and conservative organizations such as 60 plus, the Eagle Forum and Tea Party Patriots in addition to Americans for Prosperity — have chosen to hold their event in a park near the Senate. And they have scheduled it for the second day of hearings, a Tuesday, when more members of Congress are likely to be in town.

Although there will be a rally the Saturday before, organizers such as Stefano are working hardest to bus in activists from nearby states to attend the Tuesday event. Afterward, they plan to fan out across the Capitol complex, stopping by their representatives’ and senators’ offices to deliver the message in person.

A onetime local television news reporter who worked for her father’s small family-owned business before becoming a stay-at-home mother to two sons, Stefano, 37, said she has always held staunchly conservative views.

But she didn’t become politically active until the spring after President Obama’s 2008 election, when she stumbled upon a large tea party gathering in a park near her home.

An outgoing, warm woman, she speaks fast and peppers her conversations with expressions such as “hard-core!” and “sweet!”

Rising quickly from volunteer to paid staffer, she said she is motivated by a determination to help defeat a president who she says “looks down on us” and to repeal a health-care law she says is a dangerously sweeping and intrusive expansion of federal power.

Stefano said she is outraged by the law’s mandate that virtually all Americans obtain insurance or pay a tax penalty. And she fears it will impose a crushing burden on businesses by requiring many of them to provide their employees with health insurance or pay stiff penalties if even one of those workers ends up needing federal subsidies to buy insurance on their own.

Like Lemmon, over the past several weeks Stefano has been consumed with preparing for the Supreme Court hearings. She has spent hours on the phone, coordinating bus schedules and catering arrangements. She has crisscrossed the state to speak at meetings of other like-minded organizations in hopes of recruiting additional marchers.

Still on her agenda: Finding earpieces that the riders on her buses can connect to their cellphones so they can call members of Congress, en route to Washington — effectively turning the buses into mobile phone-bank operations.

And earlier this week, at a meeting of about 50 members of a tea party group gathered at the public library in Quakertown, Stefano floated her latest idea: After the rally, why not have all the women in the Pennsylvania delegation march to the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)?

It would be a sort of agitprop to parallel the unofficial hearing that House Democrats held for Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, after Republicans excluded her from offering congressional testimony about the administration’s birth-control coverage rule with an otherwise all-male panel, Stefano said.

“We all need to march in solidarity . . . and ask [Pelosi], since she’s so concerned about women, to let us testify, yeah? . . . Are we going sisters?”

The crowd erupted in whoops and cheers.

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