Gupta’s vital role

The mainstream media (MSM to all you tech-savvy younger readers) have largely responded favorably to Sanjay Gupta’s pending appointment as surgeon general. There have been a handful of jokes and even a couple of “But he’s just a TV doctor!” protestations, but the move is getting mostly favorable reviews.

Actually he’s a former White House fellow, a brain surgeon on the faculty of Emory University who performed half a dozen operations on wounded soldiers while covering the Iraq war for CNN — and a TV doctor. A very good TV doctor, which is exactly what the Obama administration wanted — someone who could communicate complex medical issues in simple terms. Issues like healthcare reform.

As many have noted, President-elect Obama is working hard to avoid the mistakes of President Clinton in the last great healthcare battle, that of 1993-94. When Obama appointed former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to head the Department of Health and Human Services, he also tasked him with leading the political fight for the administration’s healthcare reform package. Reportedly, Gupta will be part of the team selling the new healthcare plan. With Daschle in a prominent role, Obama has someone who can work Capitol Hill to make sure certain powerful members of Congress and senators are part of the process this time. With Gupta to translate healthcare jargon to plain English, the administration will make sure the public understands the issues just the way the White House wants them to. It could be a very powerful team.

Daschle has already begun the process with a series of public hearings in December seeking citizen input on healthcare issues. Daschle, with video cameras in tow, spent several hours with citizens in Indiana and in Washington. The meetings, showcased on the Obama transition website, kicked off a massive grassroots effort that demonstrated the commitment and skills of the Obama campaign army. The same volunteers who held house parties, made phone calls and got out the vote for candidate Obama organized more than 8,500 gatherings over the holidays to “listen” to America and begin organizing to lobby for President Obama’s healthcare proposals. For the first time in history, a successful candidate for president not only kept his volunteer base intact, he is actually using them to pass the agenda they voted for. With Daschle, Gupta and millions of volunteers cheerleading for his plan, the Obama administration will be waging a far different and far more effective campaign than the insular effort run by the Clinton White House 15 years ago. No more closed doors. No more “my way or the highway.” Obama will be able to legitimately claim that he listened to America and is giving people what they want. Harry and Louise alone will not be enough to stop that train this time.

The brightest people in the healthcare industry have figured that out. In offices about 10 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the leadership of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) launched their own “listening tour” in mid-2008. They held a series of town hall meetings that were surprisingly open and effective. The local media paid attention, as did the CEOs of a number of health insurers. In December the AHIP board unveiled a healthcare reform proposal that provides coverage everyone can get, everyone can afford and everyone can keep, even if they lose or change jobs. The proposal puts a heavy emphasis on controlling costs, improving quality, achieving universal coverage and enacting reforms to allow a single nationwide “essential benefits” policy to provide prevention and wellness and to cover acute and chronic care.

It seems health insurers have decided to say, “We hear you” to America in 2009. In theory, at least, that puts the Obama administration, health insurers, labor and most of the business community on the same side of the healthcare debate. Everyone agrees something must be done, so the discussion is about exactly what it is we do. That is a much better climate for reform than the contentious fight that developed between providers, Congress and the White House in the early ’90s.

 The Obama team seems to understand that issues as complex as healthcare reform get settled only with a strong base of public support and cooperation among all the stakeholders. As the Obama team demonstrated in the campaign, the right message delivered by the right messengers can achieve powerful results. If the formula works for healthcare, expect to see grassroots and communications tools playing a bigger role as the new president deals with other tough issues on his agenda.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.