Mayor Anthony A. Williams usually reserves his weekly news conference for mundane announcements, appointments, and a pat on the back for staffers. Occasionally he issues helpful advice for residents on such issues as helping the homeless during cold weather and avoiding West Nile virus.
But last week, under the guise of advancing his proposal to reduce the cost of medical-malpractice insurance, the mayor offered up his podium as a launching pad for a deceptive big-business ad campaign.
After discussing the city’s heat-emergency preparations, the mayor informed the press rabble that he wanted to “take a moment to discuss a new ad campaign designed to explain to people about the medical liability issues we are facing here in the District.”
Surrounded by doctors in their white lab coats, Williams briefly lectured on how high jury awards for medical malpractice and rising insurance premiums are driving physicians out of the city.
Then he turned the show over to Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)—a lobbying group representing companies that sell malpractice insurance to doctors. She began by saying that AHIP’s ads, which now appear in Metro stations and on buses, would “shine the light on what the mayor said” about the malpractice-insurance crisis.
One ad shows a pair of handcuffs and this text: “Busted! With the money D.C. residents will spend this year on the medical liability crisis, the District could hire 3,463 new police officers. Lawsuit Abuse: It’s Downright Criminal.” Another ad, titled “Rotten Apple!” advances similar thinking on the education front, saying that the money spent on the crisis “could hire 4,728 new teachers.”
God bless the First Amendment. In what other country, after all, could an advocacy group get away with such fantastic leaps of logic? Sure, District residents shell out for their doctors’ malpractice insurance. And sure, if, somehow, that money were appropriated by the city treasury, it could be used for municipal programs. But that’s not the way it works.
According to data supplied by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce—and applying AHIP’s logic—with the money District residents will spend in restaurants this year, the District could hire more than 13,699 police officers. With the money residents will spend on home-entertainment products, the city could hire 5,220 teachers.
Yet the distinction between public and private expenditures is just so much detail to the folks at AHIP. Pointing to the ads on display, Ignagni left no doubt that the thrust of AHIP’s message is about “$250 million going to malpractice in the District of Columbia that could be used to hire additional police officers or…additional teachers.” “The reason we did this,” she said, “was to say, ‘What does this mean to people?’”
It means AHIP is playing District residents for suckers, with an assist from the Williams administration.
AHIP insists the logic behind the ads is beyond reproach. After fielding one question about the ad campaign, Ignagni chastised the media for playing into the hands of a dastardly lobby.
“By the way, the [D.C.] Trial Lawyers Association would love to hear this discourse,” she said, “because they are hoping people will focus on whether the math is right.”
Mayor Williams jumped in to defend the campaign. He had little choice after offering up his mayoral pulpit to AHIP. “To get hung up on the math really confuses the larger point: that the overall wealth of this community is disproportionately spent on medical-malpractice costs,” he said.
Maybe the mayor was deceived as well. He said no one had shown him the ad copy prior to the press conference, but he claimed to be “aware of the overall concept.”
The mayor’s stance is odd coming from a guy who bristles each time critics use similarly slippery reasoning to criticize his legacy baseball stadium. Ward 4 Councilmember and mayoral contender Adrian Fenty has repeatedly claimed, “If the city can find the money to build a new baseball stadium, surely we can find the money to fix our schools.”
Though worlds apart politically, Fenty and the medical-insurance lobby both appreciate the appeal of simplistic rhetoric. The notion that insurance costs could somehow be diverted to the schools is a gigantic stretch. And so is Fenty’s sketchy suggestion that there would be a big pot of money for school construction had the city decided not to float stadium bonds.
AHIP is no stranger to the simple-minded advertisements. A previous national ad campaign blasting trial lawyers stated that a “lawsuit feeding frenzy costs every American household up to $1,200 per year in higher medical costs. That’s money that could have gone in your pocket.”
Congratulations, D.C. residents. AHIP’s ad people think we will respond better to the notion of hiring cops and teachers than to appeals to our greed.
The political battering the mayor has taken on the malpractice-insurance issue makes Williams the perfect salesman for the AHIP ad blitz. His support for caps on jury awards for pain and suffering breaks with his party. His views on the matter run counter to those of most of the D.C. Council and of trial lawyers, who are well-known for courting Democratic political favor with their checkbooks in hand.
A medical-malpractice reform bill that Williams introduced in May, which proposes a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering, is going nowhere. His plan would not cap awards for medical expenses and earning losses.
Council sources say Williams’ push for the caps backfired on the administration by energizing the trial-lawyer lobby. Although doctors showed up when the mayor first presented the bill, few bothered to make the rounds to pitch individual councilmembers. Historically, the left-leaning council has shunned efforts by corporate interests to limit jury awards in the District.
Maybe Williams is embracing the AHIP ad campaign in an effort to narrow the lobbying gap. After being reminded by a reporter about the strength of the trial lawyers’ lobby, Williams stepped away from the microphone, turned to one of the assembled doctors, and said, “You guys really do have to step it up.”
The D.C. Medical Society (DCMS) was happy to be at the side of AHIP, but the doctors’ group declined an offer to place its name on the advertisements.
DCMS Executive Vice President Edward Shanbacker said the campaign was not consistent with his group’s effort to “stimulate discussions between patients and doctors.” He says the DCMS has “no disagreement with the campaign” but adds, “Our message is not to frame this as a pissing match between doctors and attorneys.”
In the end, Williams acknowledged that some people might view the AHIP ads as a bit of a stretch.
“It is aggressive,” he said. “But it is acceptable to me.”
UNDER THE WIRE
With primary day 2006 more than a year away, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson was on the verge of falling behind.
In early July, Mendelson had two challengers but no money in the bank. He hadn’t even filed as a candidate.
Nothing like a last-minute fundraising blitz before the filing deadline to demonstrate the power of the incumbency.
Mendelson’s July 31 campaign report showed he had raised $30,500 since March 31. Well, actually it was more like since July 25. All of the checks reported in his filing were dated July 29, 30, or 31.
Mendelson admits to engaging in a last-minute response to the pressure of having two challengers out raising money. “I felt it was important, given that the election cycle has moved so early into 2005,” he says. “I have every intention of showing that my support has grown.” He also formally filed his candidacy papers on July 29.
The two candidates challenging Mendelson—affordable-housing advocate David Bowers and attorney A. Scott Bolden—were hoping to claim some sort of victory had Mendelson decided to postpone fundraising for a while.
Mendelson can take comfort in the identities of his challengers’ biggest contributors. Bowers’ report shows he lent himself $13,863 of his $29,073 fundraising total during the period. He also spent almost $10,000. Bolden wrote his campaign a $15,000 check, to boost his fundraising total to $37,825.
PEDRO’S BAD DAY
Last Friday, a ballot-initiative committee chaired by businessman and former D.C. Chamber of Commerce Chair Pedro Alfonso was hit by the largest fine—$622,200—for election-law violations in the city’s history. Alfonso led a shady 2004 project to bring lottery video terminals to the New York Avenue corridor. Alfonso’s petition drive was so fraught with impropriety that thousands of signatures were rejected by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which also issued the fine.
Despite the setback, Alfonso surfaced at the Friday-night at-large-campaign launch of longtime D.C. politico Bolden. Alfonso told LL that he should not be held responsible for the misdeeds of underlings. Alfonso says Board of Elections Chair Wilma Lewis should have gone after those directly responsible for the petition problems. “I dare her to say that I did anything in that campaign [that was] illegal,” he says.
Alfonso says it is clear the board needed a high-profile scapegoat. “They needed to feed something to the lions.”
Apparently Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s executive-education program is now doubling as a fat farm. LL ran into a svelte At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown at the July 30 Ward 7 Democrat’s meeting. Brown told LL he lost “12 pounds” at a three-week seminar for state- and local-government types at the revered institution. “One of my classmates up there is a nutritionist,” Brown said. “He told me there were some foods I should cut out of my diet.” Brown also said he ran “nearly every day” at the program. Don’t tell the nutritionist, but Brown left the meeting early to keep a promise to his daughter “to take her out to Chuck E. Cheese’s.” —James Jones
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