How to Respond to the “Health Care Freedom” Propaganda Campaign

By Marvin Malek, MD

Vermonters are now being subjected to the most intense, well-funded propaganda campaign I have ever seen in Vermont.

Beginning in January of this year, the group, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom (VHCF), began to carpet bomb the airwaves with a media campaign targeting Act 48, the health reform law signed into law last May. The campaign uses the standard propaganda techniques of fear-mongering, distortion, and appeal to conspiracy theories.

Reality Check

The ads allege that a secret cabal of health reformers plan to raise our taxes by $5 billion to fund the new single payer system, that these conspirators already know how they plan to impose these taxes, and that they are hiding this information from the public.

Every element of this message is nonsense. Here’s the reality check:

$5 billion represents total health spending in Vermont currently. As is the case in most states, over half of Vermont’s health care money comes from federal sources. This includes funding for federal employees, the military, the VA, Medicare, and the majority of Medicaid funding. And Act 48, the reform bill, has been designed to ensure that we continue to receive all of the federal funding we normally receive. Furthermore, most of the remainder of the $5 billion is money we’re already raising. This encompasses out-of-pocket spending, health insurance premiums, and local and state taxes that are already funding health care for state and local employees, teachers, prisoners, VScript, Catamount, and Vermont’s portion of Medicaid spending.

So whatever additional revenue is required will represent only a small fraction of total health spending—not even close to $5 billion.

The ads never mention that Green Mountain Care—the proposed single payer plan– does not go into effect until 2017.  Think about it: Is it realistic to expect those who are just beginning work on the reform effort to have already determined its entire funding structure—five years in advance? And that there is some sort of conspiracy related to Green Mountain Care’s funding for 2017? Next thing you know, they’ll claim a conspiracy if the Agency of Transportation or the Corrections Dept are unable to announce their 2017 budgets five years in advance.

Get real.

The truth is that the reform effort we are undertaking is a major change, and it is refreshingly honest and appropriate that Act 48 obliges our lawmakers to identify a funding mechanism 4 full years in advance of its implementation—in 2013. This timing allows us to speak with legislative candidates in the coming election season and share our opinions on how our future health care should be funded.

Will the propaganda campaign succeed?

While the assertions of these propagandists are ridiculous, this does not mean that the propaganda campaign will fail. Reality doesn’t matter when the microphone available to the propagandists is so loud, and when the message the microphone is blaring is incessant. Prior propaganda campaigns have taught us that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it.

And based on what we’ve seen in the last month, there appears to be no limit to the amount of money this organization has available to spew its disinformation. While many Vermonters may oppose or have doubts about the health reform effort, the scale and costliness of this media campaign make it quite unlikely that the campaign is funded within Vermont. My bet is that almost all of the funding is coming from pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. For these companies to spend all it takes to prevent single payer reform from succeeding—even in one state– is far less expensive in Vermont than it would be in most other states.

But we’ll never know. The key information that is being very consciously hidden from the public has nothing to do with what VHCF is alleging. What is being hidden from all of us is this question: Who is funding this propaganda campaign?

Green Mountain Care will bring all Vermonters into a system of health care they can access throughout their lives. And as is the case with single payer systems across the world, only this type of reform has the ability to control health care costs and provide care to every single citizen throughout their lives. The international track record is crystal clear:  Single payer systems control costs, and they are very popular – far more popular than the nasty game of musical chairs that passes for a health care “system” here in the U.S.

But this reform threatens those powerful corporations who are quite content with the health care system just the way it is. And now we see them fighting back using the technique that usually works: Throwing unlimited amounts of money to create a propaganda offensive.

How can Vermonters respond?

1.  Local media outlets should not air any media spots by organizations that refuse to disclose their funding sources

2.  Local media outlets should provide airtime free of charge to local organizations and individuals who are able to provide sensible balance when such media campaigns support primarily the interests of well-funded corporate conglomerates whose media buys are orders of magnitude greater than what regular Vermonters could possibly afford.

3.  If they are willing to air ads from such mysterious organizations, then local media outlets should severely limit the number of times the ads air so that they are not serving as passive conduits for disinformation campaigns. Effectively, they become complicit when they profit from propaganda that is harmful to the public interest.

4.  If our local media outlets continue to serve as conduits for a propaganda campaign—and this definitely includes this case—then concerned citizens around the state should organize pickets and call-in campaigns directed at these stations. Media outlets have a duty to serve the public in an ethical and balanced manner. They need to respond appropriately to this new development in a manner that demonstrates their role of service to the public.

5.  Host a public forum or public debate. Supporters of health reform are available around the state who are ready to speak publicly on the issue. I have personally offered to debate the opponents of reform in any suitable venue. I made this offer on WDEV’s Mark Johnson show last month—and Mark agreed to host such an event. Unsurprisingly, there has been no response so far.

Every Vermonter who wants to create an affordable and humane health care system for our state has a stake in this effort.

Marvin Malek, MD is a physician who practices internal medicine at Central Vermont Hospital.

15 Responses to “How to Respond to the “Health Care Freedom” Propaganda Campaign”

  1. Ray Gonda says:

    I sound like one technique that might work here is an Internet-based petition similar to ones I sign nearly every day as one way to simply get this information to the public. I do not know what the costs would be for that nor who would bear the initial costs. Access to email addresses would be required – so one may have to work through various organizations – perhaps giving them control of the petition within their own organization – thus protecting their members email privacy.

  2. oxfeld says:

    That’s a good idea Ray! Maybe we should look into that, and it doesn’t cost anything!

  3. PC says:

    “How Can Vermonters Respond?” Your suggestion of a gag order for free speech is unconscionable! Your arguments should stand on their own merit. I am a healthcare provider and fear the day that single payer healthcare is implemented (if it really does). I and many others are already making plans for an exodus from this state should it be implemented. I work with healthcare providers who live in Canada and choose to work here in VT because our system is better. The predictions for cost are out in the public arena already and are no secret (though you would like them to remain that way through abolishing first amendment rights). You have tried all these tactics over and over again and every time you pay someone to look into this, they give you answers you don’t like (ie. Hsaio report that clearly states a payroll tax would be needed). No sane person would purchase a car, a home, or anything for that matter without knowing what features would be, how much it would cost, and if it was consistent with their budget and income. How is this any different? Businesses in this state are stagnant and will remain so until they know what their bottom line will be with this. Why throw the baby out with the bath water. Set up a public option/safety net for those who cannot afford insurance and offer this in an exchange where there are other options. If your plan is so great, people will flock to it, if not, at least the whole system won’t crash with no other back-ups.

  4. Jerry N. Stein, MD says:

    While I’m not part of Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom, I did participate in the Wells Healthcare Seminar on Feb 18. This was covered by the Rutland Herald. As a retired OB-GYN living in VT who is opposed to the single payer plan, I accept your challenge to debate the topic on the Mark Johnson show.

  5. PC says:

    Oh and for the record, Jerry Stein did agree to debate you but you didn’t take him up on his offer. Wendy Wilton has also offered to debate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8E_zMLCRNgand no one on your side has taken her up on her offer either.

  6. PC says:

    With the government take-over of health care “The medical profession must decide—and soon—which ethical doctrine to follow: Are doctors to be agents of their patients or agents of the state? All of us should dread the latter choice—because we will all be patients some day.” http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Freason.com%2Farchives%2F2012%2F03%2F15%2Fthe-coming-medical-ethics-crisis&h=jAQFGr04zAQFvtmrnUHvv-Qg4v8ijBv6o8cqlDG1GB469IA

  7. Peggy carey says:

    Vermont for Healthcare Freedom’s goal is to DISMANTLE “liberty, freedom and justice for all”.

    Act 48 puts Vermont on the road to developing a fair and efficient single payer system of healthcare. Act 48 grants freedom to Vermonters for choice of doctor.
    Act 48, most importantly, justly grants all Vermonters the right to quality healthcare.

    Dr Malek is so correct that Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom, a reactionary group of what we suspect are wealthy NIMBYs, is out to discredit a 20+ year movement in Vermont toward healthcare reform. Why else do these ads on radio and TV play ad nauseum, but to instill fear, the seed of all hatred. Let’s enforce a Clean Air Act and debate the real issues of Healthcare for All Vermonters.

  8. Could the so-called Vermonters for Health Care Freedom opposed to any universal health care plan such as a”single payer” explain how every advanced country that has a “single payer/ universal health care system manages to have better results (CIA World Fact Book) in life expectancy rates at about half the cost per capita? (The U.S.ranks a dismal 50th while countries such as Australia, Japan, and Italy are in the top ten.)
    Also, are the blatant disinformation and fear mongering tactics in their numerous TV and Radio ads the reason the VHCF sponsors won’t take responsibility and tell us who they are? If what they say is accurate what are they afraid of?

  9. At least with the “Harry and Louise” ads in 1993-1994 in opposition to Bill Clinton’s health care plan, we knew that an insurance lobby group, “Health Insurance Association of America” were funding them! HIAA was the predecessor to today’s lobby group, America’s Health Insurance Plans. Are they responsible for VHCF’s ads? Who knows! Peggy is right..It’s time for the Clean Air Act to blow away the smog created by this self serving and misleading propaganda campaign!

  10. Jerry N. Stein, MD says:

    Dr. Malek…I’m waiting

    Cold feet??

    Where’s the courage of your convictions?

  11. js says:

    I already have health insurance through a previous job for my wife and myself as part of my retirement benefits. Why should my my wife pay a hefty payroll tax for something we do not need at all? Nobody can give me a good answer to this question.

  12. lodiza lepore says:

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    Lodiza LeporeSingle Payer Healthcare

    March 11 at 2:33pm · ..

    I have to object to the coordinated campaign to convince Vermonters that our health care reform law is some crazy radical idea being foisted on an unsuspecting public. For an idea that opponents consistently mischaracterize as “radical” and destructive of freedom, it certainly has some strong support from mainstream folks.

    Start with passage of the law. Do you really think your Vermont state senators and representatives are wild-eyed radicals? How about the League of Women Voters of Vermont, which strongly endorsed single-payer universal health care reform after a two-year study? And doctors: does radicalism explain why so many doctors in other states told the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) that they would consider moving to Vermont if it had a single payer program?

    The scare tactics bother me, but what really burns me is my belief that the scare campaign is significantly funded by insurers. We can’t know for certain because the groups opposing reform don’t have to disclose the source of their funds, but I personally have no doubt. Which means that some portion of that huge health insurance premium you face every month is used not to provide you benefits, but to prevent you from getting more reasonable care at more reasonable costs.

    Think about that when you open the next insurer’s bill and stare at that huge amount of money. Who is foisting what on an unsuspecting public? Who is the radical? Who is destroying our freedom?

  13. Bill Stone says:

    I would love to move to Vermont when single payer is implemented, and I’m willing to pay every dime it will take to make it a reality as long as the insurance companies don’t earn one red cent of profit. My family’s healthcare is not a business commodity for getting rich off of.

  14. Donald P. Mac Donald says:

    Why pay attention to right wing, aristocratic, zealots of wealth. Universal, comprehensive, single payer health care has been
    the standard in Western Industrialized Nations since WWII. The USA
    is the only Western nation left with an archaic, costly system. The results of our slavish adherence to this outmoded system has hurt millions and reduced our standard of living, sliding towards
    third world standards. Following the Reactionary wizards of Wall Street will lead us all to the same end as Bear Stearns. Only we
    won’t have the government they so much despise to bail us out. We
    have to muck it. Single payer is the only way to go. And we won’t be paying 10% to the Wall Street cartels. That is what these zealots are about, protecting Wall Street holdings. Forget about you and me. What a crock of rubbish. They lie and steal, but they are sophisticated operators. The peasant is easily maliable.

  15. Melinda says:

    @Bill Stone

    “My family’s healthcare is not a business commodity for getting rich off of…”

    You dont want companies to profit from your family’s healthcare, so how do you rationalize other businesses that profit off your family such as utilities, telephone/cell phone companies, auto industry, retail stores, banks, credit cards, and the resturant/food industry, etc?

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