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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

60 Plus

60 Plus presents itself as a “grassroots senior citizen organization.” Although it claims to be nonpartisan, it was formed with help from stalwart conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie and refers to its honorary chairman Roger Zion as "one of Washington's leading spokesmen for the conservative cause." This year, it's run a more traditional astroturf operation opposing the administration's health care proposals.

During the Bush administration, 60 Plus was linked to several dubious political campaigns, and had ties to Jack Abramoff. The investigation of the lobbyist revealed that in 2001, Abramoff told one of his clients, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to give $25,000 intended for Tom DeLay's political action committee to 60 Plus, although the tribe’s primary interest was in gambling legislation. (A lawyer for the tribe said that Abramoff advised them that the donation would help the tribe win clout with the Republican leadership in Congress.)

But for several years Big Pharma was 60 Plus' major benefactor. According to a 2006 investigation by the AARP Bulletin, the pharmaceutical industry accounted for "virtually all of [60 Plus'] largest contributions" in the early years of this decade. In return, the group lobbied hard against state laws that would have reduced prescription-drug prices. On one occasion, the industry hired Bonner & Associates (a Washington strategic operation currently being investigated by Congress for forging letters opposing cap and trade and sending them to lawmakers). Bonner paid callers to read from scripts that identified them as members of 60 Plus and urged citizens to tell their governor to veto the legislation. Pfizer later admitted to funding the calls. Ken Johnson Sr., a vice president of PhRMA, told Mother Jones that the organization has not given 60 Plus any money since 2004.

This year, 60 Plus has been tirelessly working to torpedo Obama's health care reform with a series of misleading and alarmist ads. On August 10, 60 Plus released a television ad warning that "The government—not doctors—will decide if older patients are worth the cost." A recent mailing from 60 Plus told recipients that proposed changes to Medicare would mean "longer wait times at hospitals and doctors' offices, less money for new treatments, restrictions on care, prescriptions and what's best for you—the patient!" And a flyer distributed in Nebraska by 60 Plus features a picture of ailing elderly people and quotes Obama out of context saying, "Maybe you're better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller." 

Conservatives for Patients Rights

CPR was founded by discredited hospital executive Rick Scott, who has emerged as perhaps the most dogged opponent of a Medicare-style public option that would cover uninsured Americans. To sell its message, CPR has enlisted the services of the same PR firm that brought you the Swiftboating of John Kerry: CRC Public Relations. So it should come as no surprise that its million-dollar ads on television and talk radio feature highly questionable assertions to scare citizens into sticking with the status quo. In one ad, an announcer ominously intoned that reform "could put a bureaucrat in charge of your medical decisions, not you." A CPR flyer referred to the public option as "Patient Enemy #1."

Scott claims that he will spend as much as $20 million dollars to defeat health care reform—he has already kicked in $5 million of his own funds to jump-start CPR's media blitz. As Mother Jones has previously reported, he owns an urgent care company called Solantis. That gives him a direct incentive to block the expansion of health insurance coverage. To that end, CPR has sought to whip up frenzies at town hall forums during the August congressional recess, issuing alerts for meetings around the country and posting video footage of heated exchanges on its website. Earlier this month, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denounced CPR for "organizing and manufacturing that anger."


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