Insurance Industry Plants Astroturf for Medicare Advantage Plans

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 7:02 PM EDT

With the subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans--private insurance provided at public expense--under attack by the Obama administration, the insurance industry is rolling out the astroturf. Their  PR campaign posits a phony "grassroots movement" by seniors who want to protect their beloved Advantage plans from a greedy federal government, which has had the gall to ask insurance companies to provide decent coverage at a reasonable cost.  

I recently wrote about the fake "community forums" for oldsters, complete with free food and door prizes, that are actually cheerleading and sales sessions for Advantage plans. The latest scam is even creepier--and it's being run by a former operative in John Kerry's presidential campaign.  

A Massachusetts newspaper, the Eagle-Tribune, recently discovered  that it was receiving phony letters to the editor supporting Medicare Advantage, using the names of real elderly people as signatories. "Some of those seniors are unaware that they have sent any such letters to newspapers. Some of them hadn’t even heard of Medicare Advantage,” writes Ken Anderson, a reporter for the paper.

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“I did not write a letter to the editor. It’s not from me,” said Gloria Gosselin, 75, of Lawrence. Gosselin’s name was on one of three strikingly similar letters touting the Medicare Advantage program that were sent to the Eagle-Tribune….

One of the letters came from William Morin of New Bedford and was addressed to the “New Bedford Eagle-Tribune.” No such newspaper exists. The street address on the letter was that of The Eagle-Tribune’s North Andover office. “I wonder who did that. New Bedford Eagle-Tribune — I’ve never heard of it,” said Morin, who is 88 years old.

A letter supposedly from Ana Abascal of Lawrence said she “wanted to express how important my Medicare Advantage health plan is to me and other fixed-income seniors in my community.” But when contacted by The Eagle-Tribune, Abascal was shocked and concerned to learn someone was using her name on a letter to the editor. She did not know what the Medicare Advantage plan was.

Here’s how the paper figured out what was really going on:

A tip-off to the true origin of the letters came when the Eagle-Tribune received a call from a man who turned out to be an intern at the Boston office of the Dewey Square Group, a national political marketing and consulting firm. The man, who identified himself as Noah, wanted to know if Gloria Gosselin’s letter had been published. Asked what interest he had in the letter, Noah replied that he was Gosselin’s grandson. Gosselin does not have a grandson named Noah working in Boston….

The Dewey Square Group was founded in 1993 by three veteran Boston political campaigners with Democratic ties. One of the founders, Michael Whouley, was a strategist on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. The group was hired by America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.

Spokespeople for Dewey Square told the Eagle-Tribune the campaign is legit and maybe the letter writers’s memories were playing tricks on them. They might have come to one of Dewey Square’s senior meetings where Medicare Advantage was pumped up, and just forgotten. “No one’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” a company spokeswoman said.

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