Millions Spent On Ad War Over Health Care Overhaul With battle lines drawn over overhauling health care, industry and advocacy groups have begun pouring millions of dollars into TV ads. The air wars mimic the fight 15 years ago when Clinton was in office, while spending on the ads looks a lot like the 2008 presidential campaign.

Millions Spent On Ad War Over Health Care Overhaul

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's one of the reasons that President Obama is pressing Congress to finish a health-care change in the next few weeks: The longer it takes, the more time that interest groups have to mobilize against it.

WERTHEIMER: Interest groups are quickly buying their TV campaigns. They're spending millions of dollars to re-fight the battles of 16 years ago - the last time an American president tried for big changes to health insurance.

INSKEEP: One of the people watching this time is Peter Overby, part of NPR's Dollar Politics team.

PETER OVERBY: President Obama wants to define the debate on health care. Here he is yesterday.

President BARACK OBAMA: This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health-care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses, and breaking America's economy.

OVERBY: Well, maybe it is about the politics, too.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

JENNY(ph): But if I had relied on my government for health care, I would be dead.

(Soundbite of music)

JENNY: I am a Canadian citizen…

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man: Including a public health insurance option to lower cost and keep insurance companies honest. Tell Senator Feinstein, we can't wait. Support the…

(Soundbite of TV ad)

JENNY: Thank you, Senator Dodd, for being on our side. Sincerely, Jenny(ph) and all your friends in Connecticut.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #2: The next big-ticket item? A risky experiment with our health care. Barack Obama's massive…

OVERBY: Current ads from Americans for Prosperity, Health Care for America Now - naming the two Democratic senators - and finally, the Republican National Committee. There are big ways in which this summer's ad campaign looks like the one in the early 1990s - the one over the Clinton health plan. The money is flowing, just as it did then, and some of the old players are back at it. Like Harry and Louise, that nice, middle-class couple invented by the health-care industry, who dismembered the Clinton plan. They're on the air again with a couple of surprises - first, they've changed sides.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

HARRY JOHNSON (Actor): Sound simple enough.

LOUISE CAIRE CLARK (Actor): A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time.

OVERBY: As for surprise number two, despite the message, Harry and Louise still have deep-pocketed friends in the health-care industry. The ad is jointly sponsored by Families USA, a pro-reform group; and by PhRMA, the trade association of the prescription drug industry. Together, they're spending about $4 million. That's a fair chunk of cash. But it's only about one-third of what PhRMA has spent this year lobbying members of Congress face-to-face on the gritty details of health care.

Mr. RON POLLACK (Director, Families USA): We don't see eye to eye on everything on health-care reform.

OVERBY: Families USA Director Ron Pollack is the man who revived Harry and Louise and who enlisted PhRMA for the ad.

Mr. POLLACK: We do have a core agreement about making coverage affordable for those people who don't have coverage today or who are underinsured, or who are at risk of losing coverage. And it's based on that agreement that we are working together.

OVERBY: But Harry and Louise still raise eyebrows - this time on the right. That includes the eyebrows of Amy Menefee, with Americans for Prosperity. She questions the motives of PhRMA and other industry groups that didn't go hard-line against the overhaul.

Ms. AMY MENEFEE (Director, Americans for Prosperity): They've kind of been looking out for their own self-interest, and trying to protect a little corner of their industry.

OVERBY: So the ads look a lot like the 1990s, but the financing behind them looks like something else entirely: the 2008 presidential campaign. Now, as then, President Obama's allies have far outspent the opposition. Now, the price tag for all this is roughly $35 million - that's for all health-care ads so far this year. But at the Campaign Media Analysis Group, where they keep track of it all, Evan Tracey wonders if it works.

Mr. EVAN TRACEY (Chief Operating Officer, Campaign Media Analysis Group): For advocacy advertising to have an effect, the equation is really sort of time plus money. And right now you have money, but you may not have very much time.

OVERBY: Not if the White House timetable holds, and both the House and Senate vote on versions of the bill this summer. After all, summer is when Americans are still out of the house and ignoring the TV.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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.