Health Care Ads: Public Interest, or Advocacy?

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Have you seen the ads on television?

SOUND: Music from TV ad (fade under)

They’re images of regular folks, tagged with their answer to the question: Do you think health care in Colorado is working?

Man: I think the system works poorly, I think we should be doing a better job with health care.

The ads are by a group that’s encouraging Coloradans to talk more about health care.

Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney explains who’s behind this campaign.

Here is a transcript of Eric's report.

Reporter: The ads tell people to go to the website Project Health Colorado dot org.

When you get there, you can see how Coloradans are answering questions like: “Do you feel like you have a say in your health care?”

And you can get answers to questions like, can my insurance company deny me coverage because I have a pre-existing condition? Will I still be able to see my regular doctor once federal health reform is in effect?

You can also post your solutions or comment on other people’s suggestions.

So who is Project Health Colorado? And why are they buying TV ads for this website? It’s funded by the Colorado Trust, one of the biggest health care foundations in Colorado. Christie McElhinney is its vice president of communications.

McElhinney: So, Project Health Colorado is a unique way for people to get information on health care in our state. And really it’s an opportunity for people to speak up, to add their voices to the conversation.

Reporter: The Colorado Trust has been promoting access to health care since it was formed in 1985 when the non-profit Presbyterian-St. Luke’s hospital was sold to a for-profit company. The proceeds from the sale had to be used to help meet the health needs of all Coloradans. That means the Trust now has an endowment of about $411 million. It spends about $20 million annually on a variety of projects.

McElhinney says the Trust is spending $7.5 million on the Project Health Colorado campaign. Full disclosure, the Colorado Health Foundation funds it, too, and also supports health reporting on Colorado Public Radio.

She says the Trust got the idea for Project Health because of what it heard when it started polling Coloradans about the health care system in 2008.

McElhinney: what we heard is that people don’t know what makes up the health care system, they don’t know who to turn to when they have a question, and they feel like when they do offer their voice, that it falls on deaf ears.

Reporter: McElhinney says the Trust wants the site to be a politically neutral forum where people can learn about health care, express their opinions and debate ideas.

But not everybody buys that. Brian Schwartz is a blogger for the Denver-based Independence Institute, which bills itself as a free market think tank.

Schwartz: To me, it’s a glossy marketing campaign to advance their policy agenda.

Reporter: Schwartz says the Trust has a long track record of supporting policies that he calls more government control of health care, and that their new website only offers one perspective.

Schwartz: So you might think that going to this Project Health website, that they’re interested parties presenting policy suggestions from all different points of view, but it’s not, they’re only presenting one flavor of solutions.

Reporter: He’s got a point. Experts featured on the site reflect the Trust’s overall stance that enrolling more people in government-funded health programs is good for Colorado. It doesn’t include opposing points of view, like those at the Independence Institute. But McElhinney points out that anyone, including its critics, are welcome to post comments and argue their point of view.

McElhinney: We’re not offering a solution, but we’re offering a forum for people to engage, learn, and collectively come up with solutions. We’re not saying vote yes or vote no, we’re saying add your voice, and together we’re going to keep this going until we come up with a solution.

Reporter 7: But Brian Schwartz and some other conservatives don’t trust the Colorado Trust to convene a politically neutral conversation about health care. He says the Project Health Colorado site should be more up front about the foundation’s point of view.

Schwartz: if you were buying a used car from someone, if the used car salesman says, I want you to be able to get to work and back and go wherever you want, that’s my goal for you, that’s different from saying, I want to sell you this car, right? Which is really for the most part, what a lot of salesmen want to do.

McElhinney: Should you be skeptical? Absolutely.

Reporter: McElhinney says the Trust expects people to question its motives. But she says they’re purely in the public interest.

McElhinney: it’s probably going to be a little bit of an uphill battle, to get folks to say, ooh, I can weigh in, and, these folks don’t have an agenda, they’re simply going to stay the course, regardless of who’s in office, regardless of which law comes and goes, from which party. that it’s not about politics, its about finding a way to get to where we have the health care that people want, and that people need.

Reporter: McElhinney says the Trust will sift through all the comments the website gathers about healthcare, and issue reports and analyses that it hopes will help decision-makers in Colorado shape the system in a way that works for most people. Some leaders will accept that the Trust is accurately reflecting Coloradans’ views, but others will dismiss its work as partisan advocacy.

{Photo: Colorado Trust]