Health plan is shot in the arm for influence-peddlers For lawyers, lobbyists and PR workers, concern over proposal means big bucks

September 27, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton probably didn't have lawyers, lobbyists and public relations types in mind when he said his health care proposal would be a "net job gainer." But for Washington's permanent class of influence-peddlers and image-shapers -- those who profit whenever the policy pot is stirred -- the debate over health care is the biggest windfall of the '90s.

"I think there will be lots of additions on lots of homes," said Steve A. Rabin, executive vice president of the Washington office of the public relations firm Porter Novelli. "I've never seen so much activity around a single piece of legislation in my 15 years in Washington."

With the president's ambitious plan shaking up one-seventh of the nation's economy, there are few industries or individuals who aren't being touched by health care reform. And with so much to gain for some and so much to lose for others, people from doctors to labor unions to insurance companies are willing to dish out big bucks to make sure their portion of a $900 billion pie, and in some cases their livelihoods, aren't jeopardized.

"It's been the most significant boon, in a bad economy, for lobbying and public relations firms than anything we've had in Washington in the last decade," said another veteran PR executive. "Many firms will walk away from this with a golden egg in their pocket."

Businesses, associations and unions are calling on lobbyists to help them track the administration's moves, press their interests on Capitol Hill and generate calls and letters to Congress from the heartland.

They're hiring public relations firms to buff their images, pitch their angles to the media and develop advertising campaigns. They're seeking pollsters who conduct focus groups and public opinion surveys and lawyers who can tell them how to prepare for change.

"People are calling us from all over the country wanting expertise what's going on and how it effects them," said Steven Epstein, who heads the Washington office of Epstein Becker & Green, a law firm with a large health care practice.

Mr. Rabin, whose PR and lobbying firm has made about $1.5 million from new health care business this year, estimates the total spending on the effort to influence the debate will quickly top $100 million, with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries each investing about $20 million, the small-business community an additional $10 million, and labor, the administration and Democratic National Committee coughing up millions more.

Pollster William McInturff, who's conducted nearly two dozen focus groups and surveys for the Republican National Committee, the Health Insurance Association of America and the Alliance for Managed Competition, figures that special interests

have already spent $1.5 million just on polling.

With the stakes so high, even trade associations and large corporations who usually rely on vast in-house lobbying operations have sought reinforcements. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, for instance, hired the Baltimore-based public relations firm of Eisner & Associates for a $5 million promotional campaign this year, along with several independent lobbyists, to augment its own public relations work.

Drug coalition forms

Not convinced such an effort was aggressive enough in light of the administration's railings against the pharmaceutical industry and its early murmurs of cost controls for drugs, six major drug companies formed their own coalition. That group, Rx Partners, has enlisted Powell Tate, headed by former Carter press secretary Jody Powell, for a $2 million PR campaign that concentrates on briefing journalists.

And already, ads -- like the nine full-page health-related ads in a recent issue of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call -- are splashing into print and onto radio and TV. In the last couple of weeks, for instance, the health insurance association and administration have been duking it out both in print and broadcast ads, with the association enlisting a Malibu, Calif.-based agency for a $1.7 million ad campaign on the heels of last spring's $4 million ad blitz.

Many Washington lobbyists and PR executives say their businesses have grown by about 25 percent as a result of the health reform spree. While some shops have put all other business on the back burner to deal with the overload, others have beefed up their staffs.

Ironically, Mr. Clinton, who attacked lobbyists and Washington's beltway bandits at every turn during the campaign, has caused them to flourish and even multiply. And Clinton associates, many of whom worked on the campaign, are raking in their share of health care dollars.

Frank Greer, who produced candidate Clinton's campaign ads, has already created TV spots for Families USA, a reform advocacy group with close ties to the administration, to counter the insurance association ads. He says he's turned away insurance associations and others "pumping in millions and millions" because of conflict of interest.

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