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Town Hall Protests: Astroturf 2.0?

The anti-health care reform groups seeking to marry corporate money with Obama-style organizing savvy.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 4:36 PM EDT


FreedomWorks is headed by former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey, who left government in 2003 and became a heavy-hitting lobbyist for DLA Piper, whose numerous corporate clients include pharmaceutical firms. 

FreedomWorks grew from a group called Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded in 1984 and whose resume includes orchestrating "grassroots" opposition to cigarette taxes on behalf of Philip Morris. In 2006, the Washington Post reported that the group had once duped nearly 16,000 people into swelling its membership rolls: Brokers for a company called Medical Savings Insurance Co. pitched patients on discounted insurance, and those who signed up automatically became members of Citizens for a Sound Economy. (A small part of their monthly bill also went to the group, eventually netting it more than $600,000.) In 2003, a spokesman acknowledged that two-thirds of the organization's money came from corporations, as well as corporate-funded conservative foundations. The next year, CSE morphed into FreedomWorks. Last year, the organization was identified as the creator of, an amateur-looking website presented as a spontaneous effort from ordinary Americans opposing government mortgage relief for homeowners.

The arrival of the Obama administration has ushered in a busy year for FreedomWorks, which played a pivotal role in engineering "tea party" protests against government spending. The group distributed organizational tips and talking points and helped to coordinate gatherings around the country that garnered breathless media coverage. FreedomWorks operatives have urged followers to mimic the tactics of the grandfather of community organizing—and inspiration to Barack Obama—Saul Alinsky.

This summer, FreedomWorks is using those tactics to defeat health care reform. It claims a membership of more than 770,000 people and an email list of 400,000 readers. Its website provides numerous resources, including an "August Recess Action Kit" to aid supporters in exposing "the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table." FreedomWorks has plotted locations of town halls on Google Maps; one memo encouraged supporters to "rattle" lawmakers at these forums. FreedomWorks is also sponsoring a march on Washington on September 12.

In mid-August, Armey abruptly announced that he was leaving DLA Piper after a flurry of media reports raised questions about whether FreedomWorks activities were related to the goals of the firm’s big pharma clients. 

Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights

The Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights describes itself as a "nonpartisan, grassroots coalition of patients, healthcare professionals, advocacy groups, and engaged citizens." Its source of funding is unknown. However, according to Think Progress, PR for the organization is managed by the DCI Group, a political consulting firm with a long history of rustling up phony advocacy groups to serve the interests of its corporate clients.

DCI's managing partners have deep experience in the political dark arts. Tom Synhorst, for instance, is a former associate of Ralph Reed (as well as a former aide to GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa). Synhorst and fellow founding partners Doug Goodyear and Tim Hyde spent years working for or with the tobacco conglomerate RJR Nabisco, where they supported "smokers' rights" groups. 

In the 1990s, DCI generated fake "citizen" letters opposing the breakup of Microsoft, then under investigation for antitrust violations. At least two of the letters were from dead people. During the Bush years, DCI created fake "grassroots" groups to champion one of the administration's pet causes, privatizing Social Security. And in 2005, Freddie Mac paid DCI $2 million to drum up opposition to a bill that would have reined in the mortgage giant and its sister, Fannie Mae—three years before they nearly collapsed under the weight of their subprime loans.

Its resume also includes several health care campaigns: In 2002, DCI was hired by the Health Benefits Coalition—an HMO trade association—to defeat a proposed "patients' bill of rights" in Congress. In 2003 and 2004, DCI worked with Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to pass the GOP's Medicare prescription drug bill, going so far as to pay health care consultants to find elderly people to speak positively about the proposal.

The face of the Coalition to Protect Patients Rights (CPPR) is Dr. Donald J. Palmisano, a former American Medical Association president whose idea of protecting patients' rights consists of trying to limit their ability to sue doctors for malpractice. A longtime shill for the tort-reform movement, Palmisano sits on the board of the Doctors Company, a medical liability insurance company, and founded a claims review company that serves physicians and hospitals. 

This year, CPPR's efforts to kill health care reform are more visible and more ambitious than many previous initiatives linked with DCI. It is aggressively seeking supporters for the anti-reform cause via press events, op-eds, a Facebook page, and its Twitter feed, which so far has a modest 1,485 followers. (Sample tweet: "POTUS says you will be able to keep your insurance...but will your insurance survive competition with a public option?") CPPR has also organized a group of doctors to tour the country warning of the perils of single-payer care. At one recent press conference that it sponsored, a physician said that in countries with government-run health care, the "sickest patients" are denied treatment.


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