President Obama's push to overhaul the nation's health care system has been sparking debate for months. But a new attack that emerged Saturday — from a gun-rights group — still managed to "surprise" the administration, according to communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
In this case, the surprise came just before the Senate's test vote on the health care bill Saturday night. A group called Gun Owners of America sent letters to all senators saying a vote for the bill was a vote against gun rights.
Pfeiffer put a post on the White House blog calling the claim "rather shocking."
But Erich Pratt, the group's communications director, says the big issues of the health care debate — such as costs and mandates — have left little room for discussion of other issues.
For one, Gun Owners of America challenges the idea of electronic health records. It says bad information from mental health records will infect the FBI's instant check database — causing interference when people want to buy firearms.
As Pratt put it: "Every medical record will be fed into a government medical database, which was created under the stimulus bill, and that information can be forwarded to the Brady background check system."
Not true, says Dr. David Blumenthal, who is in charge of the administration's initiative on electronic health records. "There is no such database and no plans to create one," he says.
Blumenthal says a unified database of medical records is far beyond the government's technology and budget.
"We don't want to do it," Blumenthal adds, "and it's not authorized. We don't just do things without the Congress permitting us to do them."
Gun Owners of America also says the health care bill would encourage employers and insurers to set up programs for "healthy lifestyle support." And it would let them charge more — as much as 30 percent more — if people are living "unhealthy" lives.
"We fully expect an anti-gun administration like the Obama administration to want to add that having a gun-free home is supposedly healthier," Pratt says.
He points out that the bill doesn't define these "healthy lifestyles" — and neither does it carefully explain who gets to define them.
On that point, the gun owners group has allies. Across the spectrum, groups are concerned about the notion of companies having financial incentives for determining how people live their lives.
"If people stay in bad relationships that make them depressed, is that a healthy behavior?" ask Karen Pollitz, a research professor on health policy at Georgetown University.
"Where can the employer be limited in terms of ability to look into your personal lifestyle? And I suppose the gun ownership would be down that slippery slope," Pollitz says.
It's possible that the concerns of gun owners could be addressed, Pratt says.
"Certainly, if there were specific language to allay our concerns, then that would remove our ability to be able to discuss this legislation," he says.
But he doesn't expect that to happen. His group has told its members it is looking to see which states are the best bets to recall their senators.
That may be tough: The Constitution has no provision for senators to be recalled.