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Democrats Attack Health Insurance Industry


Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.


And Im Steve Inskeep.

This is the month when President Obama and his allies will face sharp criticism over a health care overhaul. Thats because lawmakers are going back to their home districts and opponents are ready for them. It is also a month when the presidents critics will feel some of the heat. Consider this ad from a left-leaning group called Americans United for Change.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman #1: Why do the health insurance companies and Republicans want to kill President Obamas health insurance reform?

Unidentified Woman #2: Because they like things the way they are now.

INSKEEP: The commercial echoes a new line of attack by the White House and congressional Democrats. Theyre counting on Americans distrust of insurance companies to shore up support for the presidents health care agenda.

Heres NPRs Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama complained to Time Magazine recently that the press has gotten bored with the complicated details of the health care debate and reduced the story to a conventional battle between government-run health care and the free market. Thats not at all what the real debate is about, the president said. But apparently concerned hes losing the argument, Mr. Obama is trying to substitute his own conventional narrative. In this one, the insurance industry is cast as the villain.

President BARACK OBAMA: The truth is we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry. But it doesn't always work well for you. So

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Speaking to a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina last week, Mr. Obama highlighted proposals to protect consumers from insurance company abuses.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: Many of you have been denied insurance or heard of someone who was denied insurance because they got - had a preexisting condition. That will no longer be allowed

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: with reform.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Many talking points came during a week when several polls showed declining support for Mr. Obamas health care efforts. Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution suspects the president and his top lieutenants had done their homework.

Mr. STEPHEN HESS (Senior Fellow Emeritus, Brookings Institution): I have a feeling that at some point, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod or others did some polling - who do you like? Doctors, we like doctors. Nurses, we like nurses. Well, how about the insurance industry? Well, nobody likes the insurance industry.

HORSLEY: In his Time Magazine interview, Mr. Obama admitted when it comes to health care, he does study the polls. And that makes insurance companies a convenient, if not all together appropriate foil.

Ms. KAREN IGNAGNI (President, America's Health Insurance Plans): I think the inconvenient fact is that were for reform, so the rhetoric and the reality dont match.

HORSLEY: Karen Ignagni heads an industry trade group called America's Health Insurance Plans. She says the White House is treating health insurers as if these were 1993, when they fought tooth and nail against health care overhaul. This time around, she notes, the industrys been at the bargaining table and has already agreed to many of the protections the president is talking about.

Ms. IGNAGNI: We are for the reforms that we know the American people want. Everyone gets insurance, no preexisting condition limitations, nobody loses insurance. Those are the reforms the American people want. We support that.

HORSLEY: After all, the proposed requirement that virtually every American get health insurance could mean millions of new customers for the industry. What insurance companies dont like, though, is the idea of a public insurance option. And that has put the industry at odds with both the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): Insurance companies are out there in full force, carpet bombing, shock and awe against a public option.

HORSLEY: Pelosi said a memo to House Democrats last week urging them to stick to a simple storyline during their August recess: Hold the insurance companies accountable. That message is in sink with the White House, Pelosi wrote, and helps to counter the Republican argument that Democrats want a government takeover of health care. Brookings scholar Hess thinks its unfortunate that the Democrats of chosen to demonize insurance companies, but he acknowledges the tactic may pay off.

Mr. HESS: I dont like them doing it this much. Its certainly lowers the caliber and quality of debate. But on the other hand, this isnt and Oxford debate.

HORSLEY: And its easier to attack insurance companies in a soundbite or a 30-second TV commercial than to really explain just how the government hopes to get control of runaway health care costs.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.