Who's behind the attacks on a health care overhaul?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Much of the money and strategy behind the so-called grassroots groups organizing opposition to the Democrats' health care plans comes from conservative political consultants, professional organizers and millionaires, some of whom hold financial stakes in the outcome.

If President Barack Obama and Congress extend health insurance coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for it, and limit insurers' discretion on who they cover and what they charge, that could pinch these opponents.

Most of them say they oppose big government in principle. Despite Obama's assurances to the contrary, many of them insist that the Democrats' legislation is but the first step toward creation of a single-payer system, where the federal government hires the doctors, approves treatments, sets the rules and imperils profit.

These opposition groups appear to have spent at least $10 million so far on ads attacking the Democrats' plans. Still, supporters of a health care overhaul have outspent opponents by more than 2-to-1 so far, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending. Supporters include drug makers angling for their own protections, unions, the American Medical Association and AARP, the seniors' lobby. Supporters announced this week that they intend to spend $150 million promoting an overhaul.

The opposition groups' names sound catchy and populist: Patients First. Patients United. Americans for Prosperity. Conservatives for Patients' Rights. FreedomWorks. 60 Plus. Club for Growth.

Here's who's behind them:

Conservatives for Patients' Rights is led by health care entrepreneur Rick Scott, the co-founder of Solantic urgent care walk-in centers, which he's spread across Florida and is looking to expand. While 80 percent of its patients have at least some insurance, Solantic also bills itself as an alternative to emergency-room care and a resource for patients with no insurance.

Scott left his job as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospitals during a federal Medicare fraud probe in 1997 that led to a historic $1.7 billion settlement. He wasn't prosecuted and got a golden parachute.

Solantic's growth, Scott said in a telephone interview, is due in part to the trend in which "deductibles and co-payments are going up. As that happens, more people want us."

Scott said he wasn't concerned that the Democrats' proposed revisions would undercut his business: "It's irrelevant to us." Instead, he said he opposes the Democrats' plans because he doesn't believe that government involvement will contain health care costs. He sees it killing off the best private insurance plans and ultimately leading to a single-payer system, which he predicted would lead to waiting lists and denial of treatments.

Scott said he supports some government intervention — such as preventing insurers from dumping sick patients. Those who can't afford coverage on their own should get vouchers or tax credits, he said.

FreedomWorks, which has been advocating against the overhaul but has not launched TV ads, is chaired by Dick Armey, the former Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives from Texas.

But also noteworthy are the group's other backers and board members. They include billionaire flat-tax proponent and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes; Richard J. Stephenson, who founded Cancer Treatment Centers of America, which offers alternative as well as standard therapies, sometimes not covered by insurance; and Frank M. Sands, Sr., chief executive officer of an investment management firm whose offerings include a Healthcare Leaders portfolio.

"They're on our board because they support lower taxes, less government and more freedom," said FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon.

Matt Kibbe, the chief executive officer of FreedomWorks, said its members believe that "the government is already way too involved in the nation's health care system" and that government is to blame for health-cost inflation.

Kibbe acknowledged that private insurance is out of reach for many small businesses and individuals, but he contended that can be dealt with without creating a government-managed exchange. Like Scott, he expressed concern that more government interference would lead to a single-payer system, which would "inevitably" impose rationing of treatments to contain costs.

Patients First and Patients United are creations of a larger group called Americans for Prosperity. AFP's Web site describes a grassroots organization with more than 700,000 members that advocates "for public policies that champion the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint."

It was started by billionaire David Koch, of the Koch Industries oil family, one of the country's top donors to conservative, free-market causes. The foundation's board includes Art Pope, a former North Carolina legislator also involved in conservative causes, whose family owns hundreds of discount stores.

Tim Phillips, AFP's president, is a former Republican congressional staffer who helped former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed start up the consulting firm Century Strategies in the 1990s. Clients paid the firm to build Christian grassroots support for various business causes. That included work for since-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The group, along with FreedomWorks, was involved in promoting the anti-tax "tea parties" earlier this year. AFP also is organizing a campaign "exposing the ballooning costs of global warming hysteria."

In an interview, AFP's Phillips said that he couldn't think of anyone on his board with a direct financial stake in the health care industry. "It's more freedom-based," he said. "They have a deep interest in protecting economic freedoms." He also said that no one in his organization believes that more government involvement in health care will lead to reduced costs for taxpayers.

By Labor Day, he said, his group will have organized 600 rallies on health care.

"Americans are looking at these rallies that are happening and the town-hall turnouts, and they say, 'No one group out of thin air could do that,'" Phillips said. "The American people can see through the attacks on the other side, where they try to vilify these groups as being corporate groups or front groups. They're believing it is in fact a broad groundswell.

"We're out here saying the truth, which is costs are going to go up and quality is going to go down. And what's the other side saying? 'Oh, these are front groups, these are all rich people.' The attack route's not going to work. It's not so far."

Two other grassroots groups have financed ads targeting peoples' fears that more government involvement would hurt seniors and hasten end-of-life decisions.

One of them, Club for Growth, which advocates lower taxes, is led by president Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana who lost his re-election bid in 2006. Club for Growth this week announced a $1.2 million ad campaign against a health care overhaul, to run in North Dakota, Colorado, Arkansas and Nevada.

The other, 60 Plus Association, is a conservative senior advocacy group that wants to abolish the estate tax. Singer Pat Boone is the group's national spokesman. Chairman Jim Martin started the group in 1992 with fund-raising help from conservative direct mail guru Richard Viguerie. It spent $1.5 million on TV ads opposing a healthcare overhaul in the last week.

Martin declined to identify his major donors. In 2006, he acknowledged that his group was getting funding from the pharmaceutical industry. But this year, pharmaceutical companies lead the spending spree on behalf of a health care overhaul.

"The shoe's on the other foot," Martin said. "They've gotten in bed with the White House."

ON THE WEB

Conservatives for Patients' Rights

FreedomWorks

Americans for Prosperity

60 Plus Association

Club for Growth

White House "Health Insurance Reform Reality Check"

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