Words Designed to Kill Health Care Reform (Sen. Jeff Merkley)

Over and over again, I hear from Oregonians that we need real health care reform that provides every American with access to quality, affordable care. That is why Congress and President Obama are so focused on this issue.

Of course there are folks in the insurance and hospital industries, from the medical profession, and both political parties who will have different ideas about how to achieve our goal. But I was shocked when I read a memo from Republican strategist Dr. Frank Luntz laying out plans to dismantle any effort to give all Americans access to quality health care. Dr. Luntz, the man who developed language designed to promote preemptive war in Iraq and distract from the severity of global warming, is at it again -- this time with a messaging strategy designed to sink our historic opportunity for health care reform.

Let's be clear: this is not a strategy to push certain ideas about health reform. It is a strategy intended solely to kill reform efforts altogether. In his own words, Dr. Luntz has stated, "You're not going to get what you want, but you can kill what they're trying to do."

Not surprisingly, since the American public is strongly in favor of fixing the broken health care system, the Luntz strategy is predicated on deception.

In his memo, Dr. Luntz lays out multiple ways that opponents of health care reform can trick and manipulate the American public. One strategy that stood out to me is to call efforts to reform our broken health care system a "bailout for the insurance industry." This is ridiculous. This statement is developed to serve the same interests who stopped at nothing to derail health care reform in the 90's, who blocked health care coverage for low-income children, and whose top Medicare priority for 15 years has been transferring money from seniors and taxpayers to the insurance industry.

When support for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare became too powerful to ignore, President Bush and his allies created the convoluted system we now have. Rather than simply add a prescription drug benefit to the tried, true, and popular Medicare program as Democrats wanted, they devised a giveaway for insurance companies. For years Dr. Luntz's clients have virtually abdicated health care policy making to the insurance industry; the last thing it needs is a bailout.

Today though, even the insurance industry is engaged in constructive negotiations about how to repair the health care system. Unfortunately for the vast majority of Americans who support reform, however, Dr. Luntz's new game plan to stop change is being embraced by leaders in the Republican Party. In a briefing where Dr. Luntz presented his strategy to Republican House members, Rep. Mike Pence from Indiana, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, made it official by saying, "Frank is back."

So expect a massive misinformation campaign coming to a health care debate near you. Opponents using Dr. Luntz's doublespeak will argue for a "balanced, common sense approach" to health care but what they really want is to keep the system the way it is. They'll say that a public plan will not be "patient centered," but their real goal is to block accessible health care for every American. They'll say reform will deny Americans "choice" even when every American will be allowed to keep their health insurance and their doctor. They'll claim that the "quality of care will go down," while callously ignoring the fact that millions of Americans have no health care at all and millions more are denied the medications and procedures they need.

What we are seeing, yet again, is that while Dr. Luntz and his clients may have excellent polling data, they are utterly clueless about what the American people want.

But, I have to give Dr. Luntz credit on one front: he points out that Republicans need to appear to be on the "right side of reform" or they lose the health care argument. The problem is that you can't fake support for reform. You're either for improving the quality and affordability of health care or you're against it. You're either for expanding coverage to every American or you're against it. At the end of the day, no matter what talking points they use, each member of Congress is going to have to vote for or against improving our broken health care system.

With small businesses and families being buried by rising costs, with 47 million uninsured, millions more underinsured and American companies losing ground against their global competitors, it is evident to anyone that our health care system is broken. There are Republicans and Democrats, insurance executives and patient advocates, physicians and hospital representatives all working to meet one of America's most pressing challenges. We certainly do not all agree on what a reformed health system should look like or how to get there, but there are people on all sides who are negotiating in good faith. The country deserves that debate on the merits, not poll-tested attack lines intended to prolong the broken system we have today.

Cross-post from Huffington Post.

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