Business Lobby Quashes HMO Issue in Heated Kentucky House Race
While six months ago Democrats targeted Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) -- under "vigorous attack" for voting against the House-passed Norwood-Dingell patients' rights bill (H.R. 2723) -- for defeat in Kentucky's 6th District, the physician-turned-congress member now has the edge over former Rep. Scotty Baesler (D), the Wall Street Journal reports. Fletcher faced opposition from doctors who felt "betrayed," trial lawyers "itching for the right to sue HMOs" and labor unions, placing him near the top of the GOP's "endangered members" list. Baesler latched on to the patients' rights issue, running his campaign on "Americans' hatred of HMOs." In the past few months, however, Fletcher has visited dozens of companies to explain his vote as a "bid to save workers' health benefits," part of an "unusually successful" effort by district and national business interests to shore up his campaign. "Open-ended litigation does not have a good effect on quality. The (patients' bill of rights) would have opened employers tremendously to liability. It would have a devastating effect on the employer-based health care system," Fletcher said at a stop at Valvoline Co. According to Baesler, who worries that his "once-formidable" single-issue campaign may fall short, "They've managed to confuse the whole darn thing. It has become effectively muddled." Baesler also "complains" that HMOs and insurance companies have "quietly orchestrated" efforts that have buoyed Fletcher over the past few months, and the Journal reports that "to a certain extent" they have. The American Association of Health Plans used teams of pollsters, advertising consultants and grass-roots organizers to boost support for "friends" such as Fletcher, although the managed care industry has remained almost "invisible" in the campaign. Fletcher's victory in the "bruising battle" with Baesler could "defuse some of the pressure" on Congress to pass "tough" managed care reform, and his campaign has become a "showcase" for future business involvement in politics, illustrating that companies can use the same grass-roots tactics used by labor unions. "[W]e have decided that we are not going to cede the grass roots to labor anymore," Michael Baroody of the National Association of Manufacturers said. In the Fletcher campaign and others around the nation, the Washington-based Business-Industry Political Action Committee has grabbed the reins, training local businesses about arranging visits with "friendly" lawmakers. "Plant tours and other efforts to get policy makers into our facilities are something that was done more frequently in the 1960s and 1970s. We are bringing it back," Baroody said. In the Fletcher campaign, businesses have also funded about $300,000 for advertisements and have established direct mail efforts to "energize" voters. BIPAC also has a Web site allowing companies to create "ostensibly nonpartisan" voter guides that highlight favored candidates and encourage employees to vote. In addition, the National Association of Wholesalers has "hit" its Kentucky members with messages "enthusiastically" endorsing Fletcher as a "stalwart champion of health care reform." The "onslaught" has left Baesler "somewhat dispirited" and forced him to "sto[p] talking as much about health care" and focus on other issues (Hamburger, Wall Street Journal, 11/2).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.