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Corporate Media Performing Miserably in Health Care Debate

If it bleeds, it leads. So what happens when demonstrators play nice?

No one packed heat, no one screamed at a member of Congress, no one called anybody a Nazi, no fistfights broke out. So—no story.

All that happened was that on Thursday, Oct. 1, a moving van pulled up in front of the largest house in a Main Line neighborhood just outside Philadelphia—the home of H. Edward Hanway, CEO of CIGNA, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies—and eight demonstrators from Health Care for America Now (HCAN) got out. One was Stacie Ritter, a former CIGNA customer whose twin girls were afflicted with cancer at the age of four. Their treatment left permanent damage. CIGNA refused to pay for the human growth hormones that her doctor prescribed to help her daughters grow properly. When her husband was briefly unemployed, they were bankrupted.

No one was home at Hanway’s mansion. Ritter left a note to explain that the van symbolized a request: “Can I stay in your carriage house until we get back on our feet financially?”

The same day, in Indianapolis, HCAN organized a house call on Angela Braly, CEO of WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurance company. And in Wayzata, Minn., fifty protesters, holding umbrellas and candles, stood outside the lakeside mansion of UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley, in the rain, and screened a video that was unkind to the company. (HCAN has tried to buy time to broadcast the video on CNN, but the network refuses to air it.)

Total number of print and broadcast reporters who showed up at any of the three events: Zero.

For several months, HCAN—a national coalition of religious groups, community organizations, unions, senior citizen groups, health care professionals, and consumer advocates—has been organizing polite demonstrations, rallies, and public forums, trying to put faces on an industry that has spent multiple millions of dollars lobbying against reform, while angry protests at town meetings swelled August’s big national story. On Sept. 22, HCAN sponsored about 150 demonstrations at various insurance company headquarters around the country. The Los Angeles Times did not bother to report about the several hundred demonstrators at WellPoint’s California subsidiary office, located a few blocks from the newspaper’s office. Nor did The Philadelphia Inquirer note those who descended that day on CIGNA, nor The New York Times those outside UnitedHealth in midtown Manhattan.

The HCAN rallies did attract print and broadcast coverage in dozens of cities, but most reporters treated them as isolated local events rather than components of a nationally coordinated protest (its slogan, “Big Insurance: Sick of It”) and a burgeoning grassroots movement.

HCAN isn't trying to change public opinion. More than 70 percent of Americans - and most Congressional Democrats -- already support the idea of a "public option" plan (essentially, an expansion of Medicare that would compete with private insurers), and even larger numbers favor the federal government requiring companies to cover anyone who applies, even if they have a prior illness (which insurers call "pre-existing conditions").

Rather, HCAN's goal is to put public pressure on a handful of moderate Senate Democrats -- including Max Baucus (MT), Evan Bayh (IN) Blanche Lincoln (AR), Kent Conrad (ND), Ben Nelson (NE), and Mary Landrieu (LA) - as well as Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME), to support a reform bill that includes a public option. Toward that end, HCAN wants to highlight the Senators' ties to insurance companies -- including campaign contributions, revolving doors between industry and Congressional staff, and conflicts of interest (for example, Bayh's wife Susan, a former drug company executive, sits on WellPoint's board) - and the influence of industry lobbyists.

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