Insurers Searching For Public Relations Firm To Boost Their Influence In Washington

In Deadly Spin, insurance insider Wendell Potter describes how insurers rely on public relations firms to handle moments of crisis. The industry brought on APCO to discredit Michael Moore’s SICKO, worked with PR companies to shape their message during the health reform debate and consulted these companies when dealing with a death of a beneficiary to whom it had denied treatment. As Potter explains it, these groups have the contacts and the know-how to distribute industry talking points to editors, columnists, think tanks and reporters in a way that distorts their origin and boosts their legitimacy.

This approach is very effective in shifting public opinion and perceptions. The final health care law was fairly similar to AHIP’s original plan and it’s likely that the industry’s attack ads (funneled through the Chamber of commerce) and slew of negative made-to-order reports about reform probably had some impact in shifting the bill further to the right. With that said, it’s troubling to see that the industry is now re-grouping and looking for new PR representation as it moves into the all-important implementation phase of reform:

Five of the nation’s largest health insurance companies are taking a key step toward building their own inside-the-Beltway coalition to influence implementation of the new health law and congressional efforts to change it. The companies – Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealthcare and Wellpoint – are shopping around Washington for a public relations firm to represent them, according to a source familiar with their work. Public Strategies and APCO are among PR firms that have spoken with the insurers, the source said.

“They plan to go public,” the person said. “They spent a ton of money [in 2009 on lobbying and the election] and liked being influential and they don’t want that to go away.”

The unfortunate thing for advocates of health reform is that with a Republican Congress — which came into power with the help of contributions from the industry — influencing the debate shouldn’t be terribly difficult, particularly when HHS is already “expanding quality bonuses to Medicare Advantage plans that receive only average quality ratings.” Agreeing, in other words, to the industry’s demands before they even settle on their PR representation. Imagine the other provisions insurers will be able to successfully water down if there isn’t serious push back on Capitol Hill and the advocacy community.