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.