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First Lady Launches Attack On Health Insurance Industry

By Dena Bunis
Newsday

WASHINGTON

In her most scathing attack on insurers since the health debate began, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton castigated the insurance industry Monday, charging it has brought the health-care system to the brink of bankruptcy and is spreading lies about the administration's proposal.

"It is time that we stood up and said we are tired of insurance companies running our health-care system," she said to sustained applause from members of the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting here this week.

In her speech, Clinton mocked the Health Insurance Association of America's multimillion-dollar ad campaign, portraying elements from two recent commercials by the group to make her point.

"You know, the kind of homey kitchen ads where you've got the couple sitting there talking about how the president's plan is going to take away choice and the president's plan is going to narrow options," Clinton said, referring to the association's first fall ad campaign. "And then that sort of heartfelt sigh by that woman at the end -- `There must be a better way ...' " Clinton added, referring to the trade group's most recent commercial that suggests the president's proposal could lead health plans to financial ruin.

Clinton said the association has the "gall to run TV ads that there is a better way, the very industry that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy because of the way they have financed health care.

"It is time for you and for every American to stand up and say to the insurance industry, `Enough is enough. We want our health-care system back,' " Clinton said to prolonged applause.

"Our ads are accurate," said Chip Kahn, executive vice president of the insurance association. "I think we're raising important issues and I think it's unfortunate that they've chosen to react by putting black hats on the insurance industry."

The trade group says it supports many aspects of the administration's proposal but has serious problems with some key elements, such as placing caps on premiums and a national health-care budget.

The group also is opposed to the large purchasing cooperatives, called health alliances, through which consumers would buy insurance under the president's plan.

Clinton, meanwhile, said the alliances are "not a difficult proposition." But they are "very threatening to those who currently control the insurance market," she said.

"If we have big alliances in which all Americans put their money through those alliances like purchasing cooperatives, we will get the lowest-priced insurance."

Several of the most ardent supporters of the Clinton health plan said Monday they believe the first lady's forceful comments came out of frustration that the trade group's commercials appear to be making headway with the American people. The ads have struck at the heart of what pollsters say is most important consumer issue -- maintaining choice of doctors. And even though the commercials themselves refer to choice of health insurance plans, health advocates say the message they send out is one that frightens the American people into believing they won't be able to go to their own doctor or that they won't be covered for services that are covered now.

While the first lady is "a national resource that they have running place to place fighting fires," said one health policy analyst who closely tracks public opinion, the White House has no coordinated, sustained strategy to sell its plan and rebuff such charges.

"They know there's a problem. She (Clinton) knows there's a problem," said one political strategist who has been at recent White House meetings where the issue has been discussed.

"She's basically in charge," the strategist said. "But in this campaign she's the candidate and she can't be the manager too."

Marla Romash, who recently moved from Vice President Al Gore's staff to temporarily handle White House health communications, said there has not been a communications gap and the president's health message is on track.

"The president has made clear from the beginning that the cornerstone of health reform must guarantee every American comprehensive benefits that can never be taken way. That's always been crystal clear," Romash said. "HIAA is spending millions on what is essentially a scare campaign."