WASHINGTON — Television ads that began airing last week feature horror stories from Canada and the United Kingdom: patients who allegedly suffered long waits for surgeries, couldn't get the drugs they needed or had to come to the United States for treatment.
"Before government rushes to overhaul health care, listen to those who already have government-run health care," says Rick Scott, founder of a group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights. "Tell Congress to listen, too."
Scott, a multimillionaire investor and controversial former hospital chief executive, has become an unlikely and prominent leader of the opposition to health care reform plans that Congress is expected to take up this year. While disorganized Republicans and major health care companies wait for Obama and Democratic leaders to reveal the details of their plan before criticizing it, Scott is using $5 million of his own money and up to $15 million more from supporters to try to build resistance to any government-run program.
The campaign is being coordinated by CRC Public Relations, the group that masterminded the "Swift boat" attacks against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and is inspired by the "Harry and Louise" ads that helped torpedo health care reform during the Clinton administration.
"Everybody wants to say I'm against Obama's plan, but I'm not necessarily," Scott said last week. "The bottom line is that this is happening fast, and there is not much of a debate going on about what will happen if we go down this path." But in ads, media appearances and other venues, Scott argues that whatever effort Obama is likely to put forth, it will put the country on a slippery slope toward a bureaucratic, British-style national health service.
The effort has alarmed many Democrats and liberal health care groups, who are pushing back with attacks highlighting Scott's ouster as head of the Columbia/HCA health care company amid a massive fraud investigation in the 1990s. The company pleaded guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans, paying a record $1.7 billion in fines.
In an ad broadcast in the Washington area and in Scott's hometown of Naples last week, a group called Health Care Action Now says of Scott: "He and his insurance company friends make millions from the broken system we have now."
The group's national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, said: "Those attacking reform are really looking to protect their own profits, and he's a perfect messenger for that. His history of making a fortune by destroying quality in the health care system and ripping off the government is a great example of what's really going on."
Scott, 56, seems unfazed by such criticism, saying that he was never charged with any wrongdoing. A lawyer with no formal medical training, Scott built Columbia/HCA into the largest health care company in the United States before he was pushed out by the board of directors in 1997.