Health-Care Law Critics Drown Airwaves to Shape Opinions

Opponents of President Barack Obama’s health-care law have dominated the nation’s airwaves trying to shape public opinion of it with ads claiming -- falsely -- that it drained $500 billion from Medicare.

On the law’s second anniversary, a report shows critics have outspent supporters by a 3-to-1 ratio on television commercials since Obama signed the bill, according to the New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican campaign organizations spent $204 million on ads framing the law negatively, compared with $57 million spent by supporters, primarily the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the report shows.

Among the most frequently aired spots is one sponsored by Crossroads GPS, an organization affiliated with Karl Rove, who was chief political adviser to former President George W. Bush. It claims the new law prompted “massive cuts to Medicare spending.”

“I would call the ads misleading,” said Henry Aaron, a health policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare spending continues to grow, though at a slower annual rate than before the law was implemented, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The cuts all come from Medicare providers, not beneficiaries, he said.

’Multiple Pinocchio’

“There are various fact-checking services which use meters for falsity like ‘pants on fire’ or Pinocchios,” said Aaron. “These comments merit designation as false and multiple Pinocchios.” Pinocchio is a fictional character whose nose grows when he lies.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hold arguments on the law’s constitutionality from March 26 to 28.

“One side has made a much bigger investment toward winning the argument with voters,” Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of CMAG, said in a statement.

“For the law’s supporters, closing the gap in advertising would require not just more spending and different targeting, but the sudden boost of a court victory,” she said.

The court is considering a challenge brought by 26 states to the law’s mandate that most Americans buy health insurance coverage and its expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor.

Divided on Merits

The public remains divided on the law’s merits, and many of its provisions don’t take effect until 2014. According to a Bloomberg Poll conducted March 8 to 11, 37 percent of adults believe the law should be repealed, compared with 46 percent who want more time to see how it works, while 11 percent believe it should be left alone.

The poll also found that 75 percent of Americans said they expect politics to influence the court’s ruling, while 17 percent said the decision would be based solely on legal merits.

Among the critics spending the most on ads were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at $6.3 million, and Crossroads spending $2.8 million on ads. The 60 Plus Association, which says on its website that it is “often viewed as the conservative alternative” to AARP, the largest advocacy group for older Americans, came in third at $2.4 million.

Ad Counts

In total, 410 advertisers have aired 1,018 commercials mentioning the law in a negative way since March 23, 2010, according to CMAG. By contrast, 48 advertisers have aired 90 ads mentioning the plan in a positive way.

Targets for ads critical of the Affordable Care Act include major markets in states that will be important in the presidential campaign, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Ohio.

Sixty-five percent of the pro-law spending has been by the federal government, purchasing cable ads in such markets as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

The placements reflect the differing strategies of the two sides. Opponents have focused on affecting the outcome of elections for the presidency, Congress and local races, while the HHS ads have primarily sought to inform “its neediest audiences about the benefits of the law,” according to the CMAG report.

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