Insurers Spent $86 Million To Undermine Health Reform

We knew that health insurers pay dues to the Chamber of Commerce, contribute money for “special projects” and funneled millions for ads designed to undermine health reform, but today Bloomberg’s Drew Armstrong has put a firm number on these contributions, reporting that health insurance companies “gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million” in premium dollars to “oppose the health-care overhaul law”:

The insurance lobby, whose members include Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Philadelphia-based Cigna Corp., gave the money to the Chamber in 2009 as Democrats were increasing their criticism of the industry, according to one person who requested anonymity because laws don’t require identifying funding sources. The Chamber of Commerce received the money from the Washington-based America’s Health Insurance Plans when the industry was urging Congress to drop a plan to create a competing public insurance option. The spending exceeded the insurer group’s entire budget from a year earlier and accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber’s $214.6 million in 2009 spending. The expenditures reflect the insurers’ attempts to influence the bill after Democrats in Congress and the White House put more focus on regulation of the insurance industry.

The $86.2 million paid for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill that’s projected to provide coverage to 32 million previously uninsured Americans, according to Tom Collamore, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman. The Chamber used the funds to “advance a market- based health-care system and advocate for fundamental reform that would improve access to quality care while lowering costs,” it said in a statement.

Indeed, insurers spent millions in hopes of moving the bill further to the right and poisoning the public and political atmosphere for progressive proposals like the public option and national health care exchanges. The point wasn’t so much to kill the entire health reform bill — insurers knew they could benefit from the individual mandate, for instance — as it was to weaken it. As Wendell Potter describes in his new book, insurers were concerned about public opinion surveys which showed that Americans supported greater government involvement in the health care system because they feared the new regulations that came with it. Since the release of Michael Moore’s Sicko, the industry became interested in convincing Americans that the government should stay out of the health care system and the Chamber served these ends. And had its impact.

The negative advertising and “grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill” are at least partly responsible for reform’s low approval ratings. Roll Call has previously reported that medical interests spent “more than $876 million in lobbying expenses during the 15 months beginning in January 2009 and ending in March, when Congress passed the sweeping overhaul” and were “responsible for one out of every five dollars doled out on lobbying during that period.” That report found that insurers spent just $11.5 million on the campaign.

Of course, opposition to reform hasn’t abated since the bill became law. As the New York Times has pointed out, “opponents of the legislation, including independent groups, have spent $108 million since March to advertise against it” — “six times more than supporters have spent, including $5.1 million by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the new law.” As a result, voters saw negative, and often times inaccurate, representations of reform, with 70% reporting that the ads they saw were in opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

In that context, it’s surprising that public support for the law is as high as it is (hovering around 40 percent), having withstood two separate smear campaigns against the effort.