Ad Audit: Club For Growth’s Anti-Government Message

AD TITLES: “Six Months: The Dangers of Government Run Health Care” and “Where Does It End

SPONSOR: The Club for Growth

SUMMARY: An anti-tax group goes after health care proposals in Congress, alleging they would lead to health care rationing and crushing government deficits. But the campaign includes some dubious comparisons with the British health system, and the group’s recommended solutions are open to question.

BACKGROUND:  The Club for Growth is a Washington, D.C.-based activist group that provides financial support to fiscally conservative candidates. This $1.2 million advertising campaign, which the Club says will run throughout Congress’ August recess, targets political swing states that are home to a number of influential Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the leader of the conservative Blue Dog faction in the House, Mike Ross, D-Ark. So far, the Club has released two different ads, and says it may expand the campaign into other states later this month.

“SIX MONTHS” AUDIO AND VISUALS: A man prays over an unconscious woman in a hospital bed and bows his head in despair as the narrator intones: “$22,750. In England, government health officials decided that’s how much six months of life is worth.” The British flag is displayed next to a surgeon in the midst of an operation as the ad continues: “Under their socialized system, if a medical treatment costs more, you’re out of luck.” Iconic images of an American flag and the Statue of Liberty are displayed next to a young doctor and elderly hospital patient who warmly clasp hands. The ad goes on: “That’s wrong for America. Life and death medical decisions should be made by patients and doctors, not politicians and bureaucrats. Tell your members of Congress to oppose government-run health care.” The ad is running in Colorado, Arkansas and North Dakota.

“WHERE DOES IT END” AUDIO AND VISUALS: The narrator says “Working families continue to bail out Wall Street banks” as the screen lists the names of four financial institutions: Lehman Brothers, Citibank, AIG and Merrill Lynch. A foreclosure sign appears in front of a house as the voiceover says, “We pay mortgages for those who borrow too much.” A corporate building and the letters GM appear as the narrator declares, “We own General Motors.” The screen shows a newspaper headline, “Rising national debt raises prospects of eventual inflation,” while the voiceover says, “The federal deficit tripled in just one year.” The ad shows the words “Where does it end?” as the narrator reads them aloud.  The Capitol exterior appears as the ad says, “Now some want Washington to take over health care. Government insurance means exploding taxpayer cost.” The screen dissolves to images of a smiling doctor placing a stethoscope against a baby, and a patient undergoing an examination from a gleaming imaging machine, as the ad concludes: “There is a better way to health reform, with patients and doctors in charge, not government and insurance companies. Tell Harry Reid we can’t afford government run health care.” The ad, running in Reid’s home state of Nevada, encourages voters to call Reid.

POLITICS: The Club’s campaign is another voice in the broad opposition effort to stir up anxieties that health care rationing is the inevitable outcome of the changes President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to make. By invoking fiscally reckless companies and homebuyers, the campaign implies that the Democrats’ legislation would result in wasteful, misdirected government spending.

ACCURACY: “Where Does It End” is in fair territory in warning that the health care overhaul bills proposed in Congress could increase costs to taxpayers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has pegged the House bill as costing $1 trillion over 10 years and increasing the federal deficit by $239 billion. President Obama has said he doesn’t want the package to add to the deficit, and the Senate Finance Committee is looking to trim costs. But even if they succeed, it’s a good bet the package will include some new levies on taxpayers, possibly through increased taxes on the rich or taxes on some employer-sponsored health care plans.

In extrapolating details of Britain’s health care system, “Six Months” overstates the nature of the proposals pending in Congress. The ad alludes to Britain’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, which decides which new treatments the government will pay for, in part based on considerations of how long patients are generally likely to live. But Democrats in Congress are directing the government to research the medical effectiveness of competing treatments, with the hopes that insurers and patients will favor the ones that work. Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning accuracy arbitrator run by the St. Petersburg Times, has judged the ad “false” and a “distortion.” While overhaul backers certainly hope to discourage Medicare and private insurers from paying for ineffective treatments, that’s a continent away from the binding – and lethal – cost-benefit analysis that the ad suggests.

By stating there’s a “better way for health reform” in “Where Does it End,” the Club invites scrutiny of its proposals. The Club’s president published an article last month in favor of rewriting the tax code to encourage people to buy insurance directly rather than obtain it through their employers. This change would result in winners and losers, however: an article in the Health Affairs journal concluded that while the nongroup market “works acceptably well for about 80 percent of potential buyers,” it is “simply ill suited to absorb the sickest fraction of any population.” A Club spokesman said the group also supports permitting people to buy coverage across state lines. CBO estimates that idea would increase the insured population by about 600,000 people by making many policies cheaper. But the CBO said it also “would lead to higher premiums for people who are expected to incur substantial health care costs,” causing 200,000 people to lose their coverage.

“Where Does It End” unwittingly provides an example of the danger of government inaction by incorrectly listing Lehman Brothers as part of the taxpayer bailout of financial institutions. The government notably refused to bail Lehman out, sending the investment firm into bankruptcy. Many economists believe the decision exacerbated the country’s financial crisis, and Lehman has been routinely invoked to justify subsequent bailouts.