Health care reform backers plan a national ad offensive

WASHINGTON — After months of being pummeled by Republican attacks on the new health care law, the Obama administration and its allies are striking back with a wide-ranging campaign to stem public disaffection with the health overhaul ahead of the November elections.

In coming days, the law’s backers plan to kick-off a nationwide, multimillion-dollar ad offensive being organized in consultation with the White House and with funding from wealthy individual donors and groups sympathetic to the administration’s health agenda.

At the same time, dozens of leading consumer advocates, patient associations and medical groups, working independently and alongside the Obama administration, are scrambling to put together new initiatives to tout the law’s benefits.

The effort is designed to counter the increasingly aggressive Republican campaign to paint the health care bill as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Democratic-dominated Washington.

“I think a lot of people thought it would be a lot easier to sell the law after it passed,” said Celinda Lake, an influential Democratic pollster working on the effort. “But Democrats can’t hide from this… . We need to have a strong message about the new law.”

With just 21/2 months until Election Day, however, it is unclear if the president and his Democratic allies can sway a skeptical public that has been barraged by criticism of “Obamacare,” as GOP critics derisively label the legislation.

GOP candidates and interest groups have dominated television markets across the country with ads attacking Democrats for supporting the bill, outspending supporters four-to-one since the spring.

A new Republican group launched by Karl Rove is now pressing the advantage with a $3.2 million ad campaign targeting five Democratic Senate candidates on health care, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

And at least four Democrats running in conservative House districts have now aired ads highlighting their votes against the health care overhaul.

“All you have to do is say the words ‘Obamacare’ or ‘the health care bill’, attach it to your opponent, and it’s a boat anchor,” said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist who leads Americans for Tax Reform.

Supporters of the health overhaul believe that Americans will ultimately warm to the law when they begin to see benefits this fall such as expanded coverage for young adults, an end to pre-existing condition exclusions for children and greater access to preventive services.

“Ensuring Americans understand how (the law) benefits them is a critical step in making it a reality for all,” said Stephanie Cutter, who is heading up the administration’s health care campaign.

Families USA health policy director Kathleen Stoll said the consumer group is increasingly fielding questions at its forums from people interested in learning about the law’s benefits, rather than attacking it.

But despite some softening in public opposition and signs that the GOP pledge to repeal the law has mixed appeal, the law is still widely misunderstood and mistrusted.

A recent survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of the country’s seniors believe — erroneously — that the law creates a new government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff also noted that voters still believe the law will lead to higher health costs, taxes and deficit spending — and lower quality of care, impressions that provide a clear advantage to Republicans.

Now, nearly six months after the legislative debate ended, Republicans are capitalizing on public misgivings by linking the new law to other sources of voter anxiety such as government spending and the poor economy.

The latest ad campaign from the Rove-founded Crossroad GPS group charges Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan with “siding with lobbyists, big unions, and Washington lobbyists to force Obamacare on us.” The group is also targeting Democrats in Pennsylvania, California, Kentucky and Nevada.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is upping its ad buys attacking the law. And GOP candidates for state and national offices have gone after the law on television in nearly every broadcast market, moving far ahead of overhaul supporters.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of liberal groups that played a pivotal role in passing the bill, has opened field offices in 14 states to help so-called frontline Democratic lawmakers.

“The message in the fall will be letting voters know which side candidates were on… . Did they stand up for consumers or did they take the side of the insurance industry,” said HCAN executive director Ethan Rome.

Among those also planning new initiatives are nonpartisan groups such as AARP, the American Heart Assn., the American Medical Assn. and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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