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Will we have truth in advertising?

With the introduction of State Sen. John Marty's (DFL-Roseville) "Minnesota Health Care Act" and the clear possibility that the state could be heading down the road to statewide universal health care, Minnesotans could be in for waves of advertisements by groups of "concerned citizens" that claim to champion public health and well-being while making sure an entrenched private health insurance industry remains "in the pink."A U.S. Supreme Court decision published near the end of June invalidated a prime component of the 2002 Campaign Reform bill and may have made it easier for well-financed interests like state HMOs to influence elections while turning a blind eye to how those interests represent themselves.

The Court's decision in a case involving a Wisconsin "right-to-life" group in effect overturned a provision in the McCain-Feingold law that prohibited political advertising within the month before a primary and two months before a general election. Free speech was the principle advanced in the Court's 5-4 decision because that was the principle addressed in the case. But what was not addressed was the principle of clearly identifying who is using the speech, or on whose behalf the message is being converyed.

"You should find out who was sponsoring those "Citizens for Better Medicare" (CBM) ads that were running back during the 2000 elections," posed State Sen. Mary Olson (DFL-Bemidji) during an interview last week. Olson is co-author of the Minnesota Health Care Act. "Now that would be a story," she said.

The ad Sen. Olson referred to was a radio spot featuring a group of seniors criticizing then- Congressman Bill Luther, who was running for re-election and trying to pass prescription drug legislation. The ad said, "Bill Luther is playing politics, supporting a bill that may sound good, but doesn't help seniors get prescription coverage."

In fact, Minnesota's Public Radio's "Ad Watch" reported that the CBM ad was primarily funded by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America.

The drug industry's chief trade association, called Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), had paid for an over $60 million advertising campaign to oppose a government-operated prescription plan for older Americans.

Drug company Pfizer Inc. admitted it had paid a lobbying firm to call state residents, reading from scripts that said they were members of 60 Plus, trying to get them to ask their governors to veto the legislation. All in all, pharmaceuticals spent $600 million on campaign ads nationally in 2000.

And, although Federal Election Commission rules specifically say political candidates and their campaigns must identify themselves in any advertising, gray areas in what can and what cannot be called "political" speech make it much more difficult to stop special interest groups from playing fast and loose with self-identification requirements.

"There is an obvious conflict of interest," said Sen. Olson, "when you're talking in the same breath about health care and profits."



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