By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009
The television ads that began airing last week feature horror stories from Canada and the United Kingdom: Patients who allegedly suffered long waits for surgeries, couldn't get the drugs they needed, or had to come to the United States for treatment.
"Before government rushes to overhaul health care, listen to those who already have government-run health care," intones Rick Scott, founder of a group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights. "Tell Congress to listen, too."
Scott, a multimillionaire investor and controversial former hospital chief executive, has become an unlikely and prominent leader of the opposition to health-care reform plans that Congress is expected to take up later this year. While disorganized Republicans and major health-care companies wait for President Obama and Democratic leaders to reveal the details of their plan before criticizing it, Scott is using $5 million of his own money and up to $15 million more from supporters to try to build resistance to any government-run program.
The campaign is being coordinated by CRC Public Relations, the group that masterminded the "Swift boat" attacks against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, and is inspired by the "Harry and Louise" ads that helped torpedo health-care reform during the Clinton administration.
"Everybody wants to say I'm against Obama's plan, but I'm not necessarily," Scott said in an interview last week. "The bottom line is that this is happening fast, and there is not much of a debate going on about what will happen if we go down this path."
But in ads, media appearances and other venues, Scott argues that whatever effort Obama is likely to put forth, it will put the country on a slippery slope toward a bureaucratic, British-style national health service.
The effort has alarmed many Democrats and liberal health-care advocates, who are pushing back with attacks highlighting Scott's ouster as head of the Columbia/HCA health-care company amid a fraud investigation in the 1990s. The firm eventually pleaded guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans, paying a record $1.7 billion in fines.
In an ad broadcast in the Washington area and in Scott's home town of Naples, Fla., last week, a group called Health Care for America Now says of Scott: "He and his insurance-company friends make millions from the broken system we have now."
The group's national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, said: "Those attacking reform are really looking to protect their own profits, and he's a perfect messenger for that. His history of making a fortune by destroying quality in the health-care system and ripping off the government is a great example of what's really going on."
Scott, 56, seems unfazed by such criticism, emphasizing that he was never charged with any wrongdoing and that other health-care companies were also fined for overbilling problems. A lawyer with no formal medical training, Scott built Columbia/HCA into the largest U.S. health-care company before he was ousted by the board of directors in 1997. He was also once a partner in the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush. Scott now runs an investment firm and owns, among other things, a chain of walk-in urgent-care clinics in Florida called Solantic.
Conservatives for Patients' Rights spent about $600,000 a month on ads in March and April but is ratcheting up its buy for May to more than $1 million, CRC representatives said. Scott has also spent recent weeks meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and addressing conservative groups in Washington, including the influential weekly breakfast organized by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
Scott said he has met with "some Democrats" but acknowledged that most of those aligned with his views are Republicans.
"I believe that free-market principles will solve our health-care problems," Scott said, adding that he was successful in cutting costs and improving customer satisfaction at both Columbia/HCA and his Solantic clinics.
For the moment, Scott's campaign is a relatively independent operation, in part because major insurers, hospitals and other health-care providers have muted their criticism in hopes of shaping the outcome of a final reform package. The situation is remarkably different from that in the early 1990s, when the insurance industry bankrolled the "Harry and Louise" ads, which featured a fictional couple worrying about a nationalized health-care system.
The void has left Republicans somewhat adrift. In a 28-page memo circulated among lawmakers this week, prominent GOP pollster Frank Luntz urged Republicans to be "on the side of REFORM" and warned against direct attacks on the popular president. Instead, Luntz wrote, Republicans should warn about a "takeover" by "Washington bureaucrats" who would force patients to "stand in line" for care.
One senior Democratic staffer involved in the health-care debate said the arguments by Luntz, Scott and others are "distractions" that rely on distortions of the actual debate taking place in the House and Senate. Reform advocates note that many of the problems highlighted by Scott, such as long waits and shoddy care, are already major problems in the United States under the private insurance system.
Democrats especially bristle at the central allegation in Scott's advertisements: that they hope to create a fully government-run, or "single-payer," health system of the kind seen in Canada and Britain. In fact, Obama and Democratic leaders have effectively ruled out that option in discussions so far, leading angry left-wing activists to disrupt a Senate hearing on the issue last week.
"We are not Europe. We are not Canada," Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading the debate over a health-care plan as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a recent speech. "We need a uniquely American solution. It has to be a partnership of public and private players."