Single payer ad blitz to fill airwaves

July 31, 2012

Times Argus
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER — The newest comer to Vermont’s health care debate already has become one of its loudest voices, launching a midsummer advertising blitz that aims to spread the single-payer gospel to key demographics.

The group Vermont Leads is running a pair of 30-second spots on network television stations across Vermont.

In one, a business owner cites the soaring cost of health care as the chief obstacle to growth. In the other, a longtime primary care physician touts single payer as a common-sense solution to Vermont’s health care woes.

“We are very much committed to not only energizing and engaging people who already support single payer, but we want to also reach out to people who have not yet made a decision,” said Peter Sterling, executive director of Vermont Leads. “TV and radio ads are one proven and effective way to reach out to people who don’t attend meetings or read newspapers and who aren’t part of activist groups.”

Sterling’s nonprofit issue-advocacy organization, underwritten entirely by the out-of-state labor union 1199 Service Employees International Union Health Care Workers East, will drop about $100,000 on the midsummer ad buy, which includes scores of spots on each of the major networks, as well as radio ads on WDEV and The Point.

Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, an issue-advocacy group opposed to single payer, said the need for additional salesmanship around the issue underscores the level of public anxiety the proposal has elicited.

“The governor supports this. The Legislature supported this. We’ve passed two laws to enact it. Why does this organization feel it’s necessary to spend significant sums of money to convince Vermonters that single payer is a good idea?” Wennberg said. “It says to me Vermonters remain justifiably skeptical about this whole reform idea.”

Wennberg said ads celebrate the potential benefits of single payer while conveniently skipping past its potential pitfalls. Before people can judge whether single payer is a good idea, Wennberg said, they need to know how much it’s going to cost, who’s going to pay for it and what kinds of benefits the system will provide.

“And those are precisely the kinds of questions that these ads do not answer,” Wennberg said. “Vermonters deserve answers to those fundamental questions before they’re asked to sign on, but no one so far is willing to give them.”

Sterling said the ads are meant to counter anti-single-payer rhetoric from Wennberg and other opponents. Left unchallenged, Sterling said, those anxiety-inducing admonitions will, over time, undercut the public case for a publicly financed, universal system of care.

“We believe that the opposition to reform is taking advantage of some of the unknowns out there as we develop single-payer health care and inciting fear based on those unknowns,” Sterling said. “And we thought it was important to keep educating the public about the need for reform as the administration develops a financing plan for single-payer health care.”

Sterling, a longtime reform advocate hired by 1199 SEIU to run the new group, said the mass media exposure isn’t the lone outreach strategy it’s using. A Vermont Leads Facebook page now has more than 1,500 “likes,” and its Twitter feed is followed by about 250 people.

Sterling said the campaign extends beyond social and traditional media.

“We’re beginning to do on-the-ground outreach, going to sit at fairs and being a part of parades and doing public meetings,” Sterling said.

But while more established single-payer groups have focused their scant resources on grassroots organizing, Vermont Leads’ relative wealth has enabled mass-media investments new to the debate.

According to records at WCAX, for instance, Vermont Leads will spend $16,745 to run 109 spots between July 24 and Aug. 6. The ads will be seen on everything from the morning and evening newscasts to the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Over at WPTZ, the group will spend nearly $23,000 on 61 commercials, many during the station’s daytime Olympics coverage.

Why now?

“If you look at where we are now in the health care reform debate, we’re in a dangerous time where we know reform is going forward but we don’t have the details people want to make them comfortable with reform,” Sterling said.

The Shumlin administration recently inked a $300,000 contract with the University of Massachusetts to help devise a multibillion-dollar financing system for single payer, but the plan won’t be unveiled until early next year.

“There are people who want to use that lack of clarity to sow anxiety and instill doubt,” Sterling said. “That’s the reason in my mind we have to be out with this now.”

As a nonprofit with a 501(c)4 tax designation, Vermont Leads isn’t permitted to advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

Sterling said the timing of the ad buy shows that the group is focused on the issue of single payer, not candidates for office who might support or oppose it.

“If this was electoral, we wouldn’t be doing it in August when people aren’t paying attention to elections,” Sterling said.

This isn’t the only attention-grabbing expenditure by SEIU in Vermont. Two of the union’s political action committees donated a combined $12,000 to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s re-election campaign.

Matt McDonald, director of SEIU operations in Vermont, has said the organization believes that single-payer health care would benefit the kinds of workers the union represents nationally. The union believes that once single payer catches on in Vermont, other states will follow suit, McDonald has said.

The group is also trying to unionize about 5,000 home-care attendants in Vermont, an effort that would require enabling legislation to be passed by the Legislature in 2013. McDonald said neither the Shumlin contributions nor Vermont Leads is related to the union drive.

Wennberg said Vermonters should keep an eye out for a similar mass media presence from opponents of single payer “in the not-too-distant future.”

“I sincerely doubt we’ll be able to compete on a dollar-for-dollar, ad-for-ad basis. The advocates have all the resources on their side,” said Wennberg, whose organization has declined to disclose the source of its funding. “But we hope to be able to raise sufficient funds to produce and run additional television and perhaps radio messages. And maybe do some other, less-expensive things that would help raise some questions that Vermonters really should be demanding answers to before we proceed with this reform.”

peter.hirschfeld @timesargus.com