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Groups Take Health-Reform Debate to Airwaves
$52 Million Has Been Spent So Far on Ads in What Could Be Record-Shattering Battle

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The increasingly heated fight over health-care legislation is saturating the summer airwaves, with groups on all sides of the debate pouring tens of millions of dollars into advertising campaigns designed to push the cause of reform forward, slow it down or stop it in its tracks.

Drugmakers, labor unions, both national political parties and the sector currently under the heaviest fire -- health insurance companies -- are all weighing in with significant ad buys. Nationwide, more than $52 million has been spent this year on health-care reform-related ads, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, setting the stage for what may be a record-breaking legislative battle.

"This has the potential to certainly be the biggest [ever] as far as an advocacy advertising campaign goes," said Evan Tracey, CMAG's chief operating officer.

Much of the spending has been focused on national cable news and the local Washington market, the best way to reach policymakers and opinion leaders in the capital. But as members of Congress leave for August recess, advertising money will follow them, as the target audience for health-care messages shifts from inside to outside the Beltway.

While viewers in key states have seen "a steady trickle" of ads all year on issues such as the economic stimulus package and the climate change bill, Tracey said, "the faucet's going to be a little wider on health care because there are so many different stakeholders, and so much opposition, and it's such a big issue."

Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), is one of a handful of states that have seen a disproportionate share of ads. Tracey's group calculates that, as of Tuesday, Las Vegas has been the single-biggest health-care ad market this year, in terms of local television spots aired (716) and money spent ($315,000). Bismarck, N.D., was second in ads aired, followed by New Orleans; Portland, Maine; Helena, Mont.; Reno, Nev.; and Fargo, N.D. Each state has good reason to be on the list: Louisiana is the site of a competitive 2010 Senate race, while Maine, Montana and North Dakota are home to key senators on the Finance Committee.

Of the $52 million spent so far, CMAG calculates that the largest share -- $23 million -- has come from groups advertising broadly in favor of overhauling the health-care system, without necessarily positioning for or against the plans being advanced by Obama and congressional Democrats.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America organization has joined the nonprofit group Families USA to spend about $4 million airing an updated version of the iconic "Harry and Louise" ads, but this time the couple is calling for passage of reform. The drug industry group has more advertising planned for this month.

"Most of it will come in targeted congressional districts where our companies have a significant economic presence, or in districts where members [of Congress] can still be persuaded to support comprehensive health-care reform," said Ken Johnson of PhRMA.

America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group representing insurance companies, is running what it calls a "seven-figure buy" on national cable of its first ad of the year, calling for health care to be "as affordable as possible" and "supporting bipartisan reforms that Congress can build on." The ad comes as congressional Democrats focus their message on the alleged misdeeds of insurance companies.

Karen Ignagni, AHIP's president and chief executive, said Tuesday that while "the country should be in the midst of a transformative national conversation about health reform, instead a campaign has been launched to demonize" the insurance industry. This month, she said, AHIP will remain focused on spreading the message -- via the existing ad campaign and other efforts -- that the group supports reform.

In the opposite corner is the liberal group Americans United for Change, which began running an ad this week that asks, "Why do the health insurance companies and Republicans want to kill President Obama's health-insurance reform?" The spot criticizes the huge pay packages and "golden parachutes" of insurance company executives.

The ad campaign is running on national cable stations, with additional rotations on Washington cable, for a modest total buy of about $10,000. "We anticipate using paid media throughout August, both in the states and nationally as necessary," said Americans United spokeswoman Lauren Weiner.

Organizing for America, the grass-roots arm of the Democratic National Committee, is planning a larger offensive this month. In July, the group ran a pro-reform television ad, "It's Time," in more than 20 local media markets, and is now airing a national cable spot highlighting "the cost of doing nothing."

Organized-labor groups also are spending heavily in support of Democrats' reform plans.

In the second half of July alone, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ran at least four health-care ads aimed at 14 members of the House and Senate, with a roughly even split between Republicans and Democrats who are wavering on whether to support reform. The labor organization plans to continue the drumbeat this month.

"We spent over a million dollars in the past three weeks, and it's fair to say we're going to invest substantial resources in television advertising in August," said Charles M. Loveless, AFSCME's director of legislation. He added that the group has not finalized its list of targets for this month, but that "it's fair to say it will be a mix of Republicans and Democrats."

So far, spending in favor of Democratic reform plans ($17.4 million) has dwarfed spending on outright opposition ($8.1 million), according to CMAG, as some groups in the latter camp have been holding their fire until more details of the legislation begin to emerge.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity spent more than $300,000 last week on a national and D.C. cable spot asking members of Congress, "Did you read the bill" before you voted for it? The group hopes to air more ads this month but would not elaborate on plans.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running print ads aimed at protecting the employer-provided health-care system in Louisiana, Maine and North Carolina. "We plan to expand to TV and radio," said spokeswoman Blair Latoff, but the details have not been finalized.

After running television spots in Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota last month, the Republican National Committee is now airing radio ads in 60 congressional districts in 33 states. The organization is beginning radio ads this week in the districts of four Blue Dog Democrats: Reps. Zack Space (Ohio), Baron P. Hill (Ind.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.) and Mike Ross (Ark.). All four voted in favor of the Energy and Commerce Committee's reform bill last week. Overall, the RNC is spending close to $1 million on a broad health-care campaign that includes TV and radio ads as well as "tele-town hall" meetings and a Web site that mocks the Obama reform "experiment."

On the left, MoveOn.org is on the radio, airing ads in the districts of three other conservative Blue Dogs who voted against the Energy and Commerce reform measure -- Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Charlie Melancon (La.). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also using radio, running "drive-time" spots that accuse seven GOP lawmakers of "siding with insurance companies" against reform.

Staff writer David Hilzenrath contributed to this report.

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