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Health Care Debate Tone Sharpens


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.


And I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

As Congress heads out for its summer break, don't expect a break in the ongoing debate over a health care overhaul. Instead, expect a flood of radio and television ads, town hall meetings and various other staged events from those on all sides of the issue, even as Washington gears down the fight for public opinion wages on. And with us to discuss all this is NPR's Julie Rovner who covers health policy for us. Welcome back, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Nice to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start with where this legislation is as Congress heads home. President Obama wanted bills voted on by both the House and the Senate before the August break. He clearly didn't get that. What did he get?

ROVNER: Well, he got kind of a half a loaf or maybe a quarter of a loaf. We've got sort four different pieces of legislation now. In the House, we've got really two different pieces of legislation. There was one bill. There were three committees. They finished work. The Energy and Commerce Committee, the last committee, finished work just Friday night, just after the house adjourned. Now we've got two other committees that basically voted out the same bill. The Energy and Commerce Committee had to make a lot of changes to please its Blue Dog - it's conservative Democratic members - and then some more changes to bring back in some of the liberals. So we've got sort of an Energy and Commerce Committee bill, and we've got a bill from those other two committees.

Then over in the Senate we've got a bill that the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, the HELP committee, voted out before the July 4th break. And then we've got the Senate Finance Committee, who are three Democrats and three Republicans - have been soldiering on for now it feels like many months, but it's really been about a month. They've not finished. They don't have a bill yet. They're not going to get a bill before the Senate goes out at the end of this week. They say they'll work through the August recess, hopefully get a bill by the middle of September. So we've got basically kind of a muddle - four different products, only three of which are public.

BLOCK: So the muddle here in Washington and now the message going out in the country to the voters - during the Clinton administration. when you covered this issue there was a lot of campaigning for and against health care overhaul then too. What's different this time around?

ROVNER: I think the big difference is that last time we saw a lot of the industry groups doing the campaigning pretty much against the bill. This time the industry's really on the sidelines. They say they really want something to happen here. So they're at least holding back their fire. In fact, one of the major industry groups, the drug industry, is now sponsoring the ads with the iconic Harry and Louise, who represented the insurance industry last time and here's one of the ads that they're running.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. HARRY JOHNSON (Actor): (as himself) Well, it looks like we may finally get health care reform.

Ms. LOUISE CLAIRE CLARK (Actor): (as herself) It's about time because everyday more and more people are finding they can't afford health care.

Mr. JOHNSON: (as himself) Or they're losing coverage.

Ms. CLARK: (as herself) We need good coverage people can afford. Coverage they can get.

Mr. JOHNSON: (as himself) Even if they have a pre-existing condition.

Ms. CLARK: (as herself) And coverage they can keep if they…

BLOCK: So Harry and Louise have changed their minds - before they were against health care overhaul, now they like it.

ROVNER: Well, now they say it's really time to finish the job.

BLOCK: Julie, there is still a lot of negative advertising about this plan.

ROVNER: There is plenty of negative advertising but most of it is coming directly from either the Republicans or groups that are pretty closely affiliated with Republicans. There's an ad out just today from House minority leader John Boehner. It needs a little bit of set up because it's pretty visual, but it features the theme music and one of the actors from the soap opera "The Young and the Restless."

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV. If your child had a cough she'd get just what the doctor orders.

(Soundbite of coughing)

President BARACK OBAMA: You know what, I make a lot more money if I take this kid's tonsils out.

Unidentified Man: I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV.

Pres. OBAMA: If there's a blue pill and a red pill and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price.

BLOCK: Some message there: The government is going to be controlling your health care decisions.

ROVNER: Indeed, President Obama is playing doctor.

BLOCK: Democrats have ads out too and they are hitting a new theme.

ROVNER: Yes, indeed it's actually a return to the old theme from the Clinton administration, which is bash the insurance industry. You know, all those photo ops we'd earlier this year with President Obama and insurance executives making nice, well, you can forget about them. Now instead of talking about health reform, the president is talking about health insurance reform. Here's another ad out just today from a Democrat-affiliated group called Americans United for Change.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Why do the health insurance companies and Republicans want to kill President Obama's health insurance reform? Because they like things the way they are now. Ed Hanway, CEO of insurance giant CIGNA, makes $12.2 million a year - that's $5,883 an hour.

BLOCK: Julie, do you think this tactic of bashing the insurance companies, could that backfire against Democrats.

ROVNER: Well, it could. So far, the insurance industry has been pretty supportive of this process. And if the Democrats really get, you know, too viciously against them, they could come out against it. You really don't want the insurance industry's pocketbook out advertising against this bill too. That could be something they could live to regret.

BLOCK: NPR's health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Thanks so much.

ROVNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.