DeParle battles old and new critics

Chris Frates
Politico, Capitol News Company
Washington, D.C.

After word leaked that a North Carolina insurance company was planning Web videos critical of President Barack Obama’s proposal for a public health insurance plan, the White House health reform czar had the company’s chief executive on the phone explaining himself.

And not long after the phone call between Nancy-Ann DeParle and Bob Greczyn of BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, the company dropped its plans to post the anti-public-plan videos on the Web, DeParle and a company spokesman told POLITICO.

“He said, ‘Well, Nancy-Ann, those aren’t ads. Those were just going to go up on a website,’” DeParle said in an interview in the Old Executive Office Building. “He’s not doing it now.”

Greczyn told DeParle that his company supported reform, she said, but worried the public plan would destroy the health insurance industry.

DeParle, who ran Medicare and Medicaid programs under President Bill Clinton, said “it was a déjà vu moment” because it reminded her of the industry’s opposition to reform in the ’90s.

In this case, DeParle got involved personally. But that call showed that DeParle and other Democrats are going take the fight to opponents of Obama’s plans in hopes of avoiding one mistake from that earlier battle: letting the other side get the upper hand in the message wars.
For DeParle, it’s just one more thing to worry about in what is already an ambitious plan, with the clock ticking on Obama’s goal of getting a bill done this year.

She’ll spend seven or eight hours per day on the Hill during this week’s congressional recess. “We have a lot to get done in a short amount of time,” DeParle said. “The timeline is aggressive, but I think it is doable.”

Last week, The Washington Post published three storyboards of videos critical of the public health insurance option, obtained before the videos were posted publicly. When the campaign was exposed, it enraged progressives, who accused insurance industry officials of crossing their fingers behind their backs when they promised to work with Obama to cut costs and pass health care reform.

BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina spokesman Lew Borman said its website on reforms, which is still being developed, will not include either the video ideas that leaked out last week or similar opposition messaging.

“What I think people will find is that we are a proponent for health care reform. We are a proponent for change. And that will be reflected in the kinds of information, including some video links, that are in development right now,” Borman said. “Will it be the same as what was leaked to the Post? No. I’m confident that folks will see a positive message.”
But Borman would not rule out running other forms of negative advertising.
The leaked storyboards came just days after the president of the American Hospital Association said the White House misrepresented how much in savings six major health care organizations had agreed to find. On Friday, liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about both episodes under the headline “Blue Double Cross.”

Jacki Schechner, a spokeswoman for Health Care for America Now, a coalition of progressive groups pushing for a public plan, said the insurance industry is not going to back off from its opposition, because it stands to lose too much money.

“They got their hand caught in the cookie jar, and now they’re going to eat carrots for a little while but continue to buy cookies. I think you can’t trust them one bit. This was well on its way to being produced, and they caught got,” she said of the videos. “They made it very clear that they oppose giving everybody a choice of a public health insurance plan.”

Despite the ongoing resistance from some in the health industry, DeParle said she remains optimistic about Congress, the White House and the industry continuing to work together on an overhaul bill.

As for her role as the czar, DeParle said she views herself as a “point person” to coordinate all the different officials in the White House and Health and Human Services working on health reform.

“So what I get to do is help bring them in to work with Congress. We are not writing a bill here. We are working with Congress on the details” of its bills, which are all based on the president’s plans, she said.

The industry is still at the table. Six health care organizations — America’s Health Insurance Plans, American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, Advanced Medical Technology Association, Service Employees International Union and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association — announced recently that they would find $2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years.

The groups met last Tuesday and plan to gather three or four more times before presenting a more detailed plan to DeParle and the president in early June, DeParle said.

“There is this sense that this president, he means it when he says health care will happen this year,” she said. “And they want to be a part of it.”