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Secretive front group battles health bill

A secretive group called Americans for Quality and Affordable Healthcare  is working to  to shape public and congressional opinion about health reform while keeping details about its sponsors under wraps.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One operative tried to enlist trade groups in Maine to oppose government-run health coverage. Another helped a member of a Las Vegas conservative group appear on local talk radio to criticize the proposal. A third persuaded a Louisiana activist to post an opinion piece on a conservative blog.

These below-the-radar activities were the handiwork of a law firm in Charlotte, N.C., that operates a secretive group called Americans for Quality and Affordable Healthcare. The organization's sponsors remain a mystery — its Web site offers no clues, and the law firm won't say.

In a year that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on health care lobbying and TV ads, the advocacy group's impact is hard to gauge since the full scope of its operations is unclear. But its activities illustrate how some are furtively trying to shape public and congressional opinion through front groups — seemingly independent organizations that pursue their founders' goals while masking their identity.

One clue to the mystery group may lie in its goals: to oppose any government-run insurance option, the approach favored by President Barack Obama and most Democrats, and to support requiring all Americans to buy insurance.

Those aims match two of the health insurance industry's top priorities. Several industry officials disavowed any knowledge of the group and said they're not behind it, including the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, Blue Cross-Blue Shield of North Carolina, and other large national and North Carolina insurers.

‘They want to stay in the background’
Presented evidence that the activities in Maine, Nevada and Louisiana involved employees of Moore & Van Allen, one of North Carolina's larger law firms, the firm's spokesman Matthew French acknowledged the connection and said the firm runs the health care group for clients. He declined to name them, but he referred to "member companies of AQAH," the group's acronym.

"They want to stay in the background and off the front page," said French. "They want the message to be the important thing."

Moore & Van Allen has more than 300 attorneys and numbers financial, manufacturing, technology and health companies among its clients, although it won't name them. It says they include "some of America's foremost hospitals, multi-institutional health care systems, physician groups, specialty providers, lenders and insurers."

French would not discuss the health group's financing or provide much detail about its activities, saying it gives materials to like-minded organizations to distribute to their members.

The three states where the group's activities have been noticed are focal points of the health care fight. Nevada is home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who is putting together the Senate's health overhaul bill. Louisiana and Maine are represented by two senators viewed as swing votes: Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

French acknowledged the group is hoping its activities will build pressure on lawmakers.

"Obviously we want to educate to an end purpose. Otherwise we're just kind of preaching to trees," he said.

No clues to sponsorship
The group's Web site says publicly run insurance would "drive all the major players out of the healthcare market," and it includes a page that lets people easily e-mail members of Congress to express those views.

The site does not reveal its sponsorship or provide an address or phone number, unusual for an Internet site trying to arouse public action. Even the owner of the site's Internet domain name is hidden, officially registered to Domains By Proxy Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., company that shields the real owner's identity.

French said the three employees of the law firm whose activities for the group were discovered work for the firm's government affairs division, which the practice's Web site says helps clients "shape public opinion, defeat adverse legislation." None of the three is listed as an attorney.

The operatives' activities have included:

  • Several weeks ago, Lindsay Schroeder, a legislative aide at the law firm, approached the Maine Hospital Association in Augusta to see if it would participate in panel discussions about the health care overhaul, said association spokeswoman Mary Mayhew. "I assume she was trying to get some media coverage. I'm sure a part of it was to generate grass-roots activity," Mayhew said. Officials of at least three other Maine trade groups described similar visits around the same time, but they could not recall the woman's name or affiliation. All said they declined involvement.
  • A deputy director of the firm's government affairs team, Andrew Smith, helped a representative of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Council appear on a Las Vegas talk radio show to discuss health care, said council spokesman Andy Matthews.
  • Reid McMillan, another deputy director of government affairs, e-mailed an opinion column the health care group distributes to Ellen Carmichael, a conservative activist in Baton Rouge, La., who got it posted on a conservative blog called Healthcare Horserace.