The Harry and Louise show

The fictional couple who appeared in anti-Clinton ads are now in a new campaign.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Harry and Louise are back.
That fictional typical America couple credited -- or blamed, depending on your point of view -- with scuttling the 1994 Clinton health plan are back with new commercials.

Harry and Louise could be anyone's middle-aged next-door neighbors, the Ozzie and Harriet of the '90s. Harry has glasses and a receding hairline. Louise has windswept dark blond hair. And they have comforting voices that ooze concern.

This time, instead of trying to derail a national health-reform plan,
they're promoting health insurance coverage for the more than 44 million uninsured Americans. Not only are the actors the same in these commercials, so is the group that's bankrolling the campaign.

The Health Insurance Association of America spent $17 million on its battle to convince America that passage of the Clinton health plan would be devastating. They said people would lose their choice of doctors, that insurance would become so expensive employers would drop it. And on it went. Now the trade association for many of the nation's health insurance companies is spending an initial $1 million on its "InsureUSA" campaign.

The commercials are still set around Harry and Louise's kitchen table. There's still a cup of coffee on the table. But there's something new. Harry and Louise are now poring over a laptop computer. And they're talking about e-mailing instead of writing to politicians.

As word spread through the nation's capital that this fictional couple was back, health-policy wonks and lobbyists howled. And then they talked about the irony of the health insurance industry's seeming turnaround.

"I guess they're trying to salve their conscience," said John Rother,
senior lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons and one of the key architects of the effort to get Clinton's plan enacted. "It is surprising that they would use the very same people that are identified with the negative, with killing health reform, to argue for expanded insurance."

Not so, says Richard Coorsh, chief spokesman for HIAA. Coorsh says HIAA has always been for universal health coverage; it was
just Clinton's ideas that the industry did not like. The ads started running Wednesday and will be on CNN through Jan. 30. They will run in the nation's major newspapers, including
the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, the motives behind this plan are not strictly altruistic.
The more people with health insurance, the more business for HIAA's 290 member companies. The HIAA plan basically builds on the current employer-based health insurance system, and includes tax provisions allowing individuals to deduct 100 percent of health insurance premiums, and special provisions for small employers with low-wage workers.

And there are government subsidies for the poor. Anyone earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty limit who
doesn't have health insurance would be eligible for government
coverage, similar to the plans now provided by the State Health
Insurance Program. For the so-called working poor, those earning between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty limit, vouchers worth about $2,000 a year -- about 75 percent of the health premiums -- would be available. The plan would cost $50 billion a year.

During Clinton's health-reform effort, the HIAA was pretty much aligned with the Republicans, and a former Republican congressman was its president. Now a former Capitol Hill health staffer, Chip Kahn, is the group's president. But that's where any Republican connection stops.

HIAA's plan sounds remarkably like the one being hawked by former Sen. Bill Bradley. It goes even further than the one Vice President Al Gore has suggested. And so far nothing like it has been suggested by any of the GOP hopefuls.

The ad campaign is timed both to the presidential campaign season, the president's State of the Union address next week and next week's return of Congress. "We think this is the most important domestic policy issue," said Coorsh.

If the past is any indication, this first $1 million media buy will not be the last for the HIAA in this campaign. When asked what's planned next Coorsh would only say, "Stay tuned."

By Dena Bunis

Dena Bunis is Washington bureau chief of the Orange County Register.

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