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Transcript: Dissecting The Claims On Both Sides Of Health Reform Ads

Jackie Judd and Jordan Rau discuss the accuracies and inaccuracies of recent television ads on health care reform legislation. So far, over $165 million has been spent by groups trying to influence the debate.

Watch video interview or listen to the audio version (.mp3)

A transcript is below:

Jackie Judd: Good day, I’m Jackie Judd with Ad Audit – a frequent feature of KFF Health News that examines how both sides in the debate over health care reform are using commercials to get their messages across. Reporter Jordan Rau is with me to discuss what he’s found of late. Welcome, Jordan.

Jordan Rau: Thanks for having me.

Jackie Judd: Since the House passed its health care reform bill, about a month ago, what have been the emerging themes that you seen in these TV campaigns?

Jordan Rau: The people who are in favor of health overhaul, have been very aggressive in putting out ads to thank the lawmakers who voted for it. It was a difficult vote for many of the House members in swing districts. They’re very cognizant of the past, in 1993 the last time this came around, that there wasn’t a lot of support publicly for those people, and so this time they want to give as much positive reinforcement as possible.

Jackie Judd: Let’s see one of those commercials that fall along those lines.

Advertisement:  “The insurance lobbyists weren’t happy when Congressmen Berry and Snyder voted for health insurance reform. No wonder they are being attacked with TV ads. Insurance companies know the reform bill would stop them from raising premiums. And stop them from denying coverage when you’re sick. And the reform bill will strengthen Medicare. That’s why it’s endorsed by the AARP. Call Congressman Berry and Congressman Snyder. Tell them not to back down. Tell them to keep fighting for us.”

Jackie Judd: What else is behind a commercial like that, in addition to what you mentioned earlier, and that is simply giving these lawmakers some support when they took tough votes?

Jordan Rau: Part of it is that they’re trying to counter at the same time, some of the strong criticisms on policy issues that are being brought about the bill. In this case, Medicare is one of the major things that people against the bill have been attacking in their own ads. And so they want to counter and say actually, these measures will strengthen Medicare. Now the reality is the bills themselves have some things that will strengthen Medicare, have some things that may weaken Medicare. It’s not a clear net balance. But it is overwhelmingly a major theme that has popped up in ads on both sides in the last month as the bills passed the House and came to the Senate floor.

Jackie Judd: And there is another commercial we want to watch that touches on the issue of Medicare. The message I think is directed to an older population. Let’s watch.

Advertisement: “A message from June O’Neill concerning health care reform. Our country is facing an enormous debt crisis. Many of the plans to reform health care will make this crisis worse. As an economist and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, I’m deeply concerned about these health care reforms. They will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the already $12 trillion national debt. We are paying $500 million a day in interest alone. This growing debt is unsustainable. It will have huge negative effects on jobs, taxes and our economy. Unfortunately, some politicians are using accounting gimmicks to hide the cost of these changes. And seniors on Medicare will pay the price. Changes are necessary. But I fear these health reforms are definitely not the answer.”

Jackie Judd: is responsible for that commercial and some others. Who are they?

Jordan Rau: There’s a group called the Employment Policies Institute that was started by a Washington lobbyist named Dick Berman, he’s run a whole bunch of campaigns in the past for the restaurant industry and other groups. He’s not disclosing who’s paying for this ad, but he says he has about $12 million for it, and a host of other ads. And so he’s behind this ad.

Jackie Judd: And give us a minute or two on the accuracy and inaccuracies in this commercial, which is something that you do with all of your web pieces – you evaluate the truthfulness of them.

Jordan Rau: This is a really interesting piece because, by choosing June O’Neill, they’ve taken someone who used to run the Congressional Budget Office, which has become the real arbiter of whether these bills pass fiscal muster. And her claim that there are accounting gimmicks has some truth in it. There are things in the bill that lawmakers have put in to lower the overall cost to the deficit. But there’s no one who says it’s going to clearly harm elderly people on Medicare, as we discussed before. And also, according to CBO, Congressional Budget Office, it’s not going to cause dramatic increases in the federal debt. So that’s not accurate either.

Jackie Judd: Jordan, how much money at this point has been spent on these kinds of commercials?

Jordan Rau: It’s been about $165 million so far and that again goes all the way back to the summer when they started running them. It’s an enormous amount, one of the largest quantities that’s been spent on a legislative battle as opposed to an election. Some of the money has been spent in actual election battles. The seat to replace Ted Kennedy up in Boston, health care has become a major issue in some of those ads. But for the most part, they’re all on influencing lawmakers, now who either have voted or will vote, and also in setting the stage for 2010 Congressional elections.

Jackie Judd: And as we move towards a more crucial time when some final votes are going to be taken in the coming weeks, do you expect there to be an avalanche of these commercials on television?

Jordan Rau: I think they’re going to keep on going. And I think one the interesting things about the House ads, were that these ran after the House had voted. So people had already cast their vote and then they were thanked, which indicates that there’s some concern that those lawmakers are going to be under considerable pressure when the bills come back after a conference committee. So yes, I think there will be a lot more.

Jackie Judd: As we were discussing before we started taping – despite the fact that $165 million has been spent, there is no single iconic image or iconic commercial that’s emerged in the way it did back in 1993 with Harry and Louise. Why is that?

Jordan Rau: I think for two reasons. One is: media are much more diffuse now. People are getting these messages out through so many different ways and so TV becomes a smaller part of that. So you have Internet campaigns, you have talk shows, radio, all these take such a larger part that the messages are just coming from different directions. And just like the nightly news doesn’t have its power to shape people’s perceptions as much, neither do individual campaigns. The other thing is just creativity. People have been trying, creating different types of ads, really humorous ones and straight ones, to try and really capture an issue and move people. And I’m not sure anyone’s really come up with an ad that’s Academy Award winning.

Jackie Judd: Well do they know if they’re being effective? The organizations that are behind these commercials?

Jordan Rau: I think it’s pretty hard to tell because people are getting so many messages from so many places, it’s hard to single out just an ad. But you can certainly tell in certain ways, a lot of the ads have phone numbers attached to them. And you call to register your displeasure with a senator or with a House member, and so by the number of calls they get, they can certainly get a sense of that. And one of the things they do is they’ll just channel that person directly to the office, but I’m sure they have counts on how many people are calling. But they’re not going to share those outside of their organizations.

Jackie Judd: Okay, thank you very much. We’ll check in with you again in another month or so.