Medical Groups Blast HMO Ad Campaign

From the WebMD Archives

March 29, 2000 (Washington) -- An ad campaign that was intended to change the focus of the health care debate from patients rights in HMOs to medical error is drawing flak from doctors and hospitals. The American Association of Health Plans (AAHP), the primary lobby for managed care plans, launched the controversial TV spot Tuesday by purchasing $200,000 of airtime on ABC, NBC and CNN.

Now the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) are blasting the effort. The AHA says this two-week campaign "puts the American Association of Health Plans in the same league as the gun lobby and big tobacco." Nancy Dickey, MD, the immediate past president of the AMA, labels the ad as a "desperate eleventh-hour attempt to change the subject with expensive TV ads."

These charges hurled by top-tier medical organizations sound harsh, even in an emotionally charged debate over how to reform the nation's health care system.

"The recent ad campaign put on by the American Association of Health Plans is a cynical attempt to gum up the works on patient protection. This may backfire on them big time," Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, tells WebMD. Ganske, a plastic surgeon, is considered a leader in the battle for a patient bill of rights. He also says the campaign was a tactical error, because the AAHP has made the powerful AHA "really, really angry."

With video of a doctor and patient in an operating room, the ad begins with an announcer saying, "Medical mistakes can kill." The commercial then refers to last year's highly publicized report from the Institute of Medicine, which linked as many as 98,000 U.S. patient deaths to medical errors each year.

The spot goes on to suggest that medical mishaps can be reduced, but lawsuits aren't the answer: "Get patients the care they need instead of getting lawyers the clients they want. Let's have a real health care debate. Call Congress."

Is this a thinly veiled effort to derail the congressional conference committee negotiations over the shape of a managed care bill of rights, and in particular, whether patients can sue their health plans in state court for denying care?

While the AAHP is bitterly opposed to lifting the shield that protects HMOs from most lawsuits, AAHP President and CEO Karen Ignani says the ad's intent is not to thwart pending legislation.

"We're not trying to derail the bill of rights. What we're trying to do is send a strong message that the way to deal with patient protection ... is not through increased courts and trial lawyers, but through external review," Ignani tells WebMD. She says she's "shocked" and "disappointed" by the response to the ad.

Rick Wade, senior vice president of the AHA, tells WebMD that he isn't appeased. "For the health plans ... to take this issue and throw it in the path of the legislation that may be coming out, that was ... an insult to the people that actually deliver care," he says.

But Ignani counters, saying, "This [broadening the power to sue the health plan] isn't the right way to solve health care problems. That's what the message is."

Meanwhile, Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., the co-author of the tough patient protection bill that passed the House last year, praised the AAHP for endorsing a national reporting system for medical error, saying it could be a "great opportunity" for moving forward with negotiations over his plan.

Many have expressed that they feel it's necessary to address the issues of medical error and patient protection. In his Wednesday news conference, President Clinton once again urged swift passage of the bill of rights. And, through a spokeswoman, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., one of the conferees on the bill and a transplant surgeon, says he too is concerned about medical error. However, he doesn't want that to detract from passing a bill of rights.

Click here to see a transcript of the AAHP commercial and more information.

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