Harry and Louise are back — but this time they’re ready for change

The younger Harry and Louise worried about government interference.

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series on health-care policy. For a previous installment, go here.

Remember Harry and Louise, the couple whose ads are often credited with unraveling the Clinton administration’s universal health-care proposal 15 years ago?

They’re baaack. And we’re going to see a lot of them.

Only this time around, the fictional Harry and Louise don’t entirely dismiss the idea of government interference. In fact, Louise says at the end of one 30-second spot: “Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda.”

Today, Harry and Louise worry about a friend’s lack of coverage.

Forty TV spots have been booked on WCCO, KARE, KSTP and KMSP during the Republican National Convention from Sept. 1-4 in St. Paul, says Mike Maguire, spokesman for the Midwest division of the American Cancer Society, one of several groups cosponsoring the multimillion-dollar national campaign. The spots also will run next week during the Democratic National Convention in Denver and during programs including “Face the Nation,” “Meet the Press” and cable news shows.

Advertising Age reports that the older spots from the 1990s were produced for the Health Insurance Association of America and “are credited for kicking off the subsequent boom in public-policy advertising.” According to Ad Age, “the ads were seen as evidence that pitching policy issues directly to voters can be as effective as lobbying Capitol Hill action.”

The older ads included this statement about the Clintons’ proposed health-care reform plan: “If we let the government choose, we lose.”

Could this latest round of ads be considered a flip-flop?

A new group of players
“The ads were used 15 years ago to oppose efforts to health-care reform and I think that 15 years later, they’re being used by a diverse group of people to take it up … to argue that we’ve reached critical mass and it’s really time to bring diverse opinions together and come up with a solution,” Maguire says.

Besides, Harry and Louise aren’t owned by the Health Insurance Association of America. Goddard Claussen, the agency that developed the original Harry and Louise ads, retained the intellectual rights to the couple, according to Ad Age.

In addition to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, groups behind the latest ad campaign are the National Federation of Independent Business, the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Health Association and Families USA.

The new ad as well as the new sponsors caught some universal health-care advocates and health-care reformers off-guard.

“Everybody remembers who Harry and Louise were and that they hated the (Clinton) plan,” said state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who has proposed universal health coverage called the Minnesota Health Plan. “It’s very amusing. At first, when I read that it (the new ad) was by the same ad agency, I assumed the insurance industry was behind it.”

As far as he’s concerned, the new ad favors universal coverage for all.

Reform hopes were dashed
State Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped carry the legislation that set up the MinnesotaCare insurance program for low-income residents in 1993, remembers the original Harry and Louise ads as disillusioning. “We had just done a round of health-care reform in Minnesota and we were hopeful the federal government would be a partner, and of course it didn’t work out so well,” she said.

But if Harry and Louise are rethinking their views in a new century, is that a good thing?
“My own taste is I wish they had used somebody different, but I guess Americans might remember them more,” Berglin said. “It is kind of a flip-flop really. The original Harry and Louise ads were designed to try and make people be afraid of having the federal government do anything in this area.”

Now the couple seems to be appealing for some sort of federal intervention.

What kind of intervention isn’t spelled out
Maguire of the American Cancer Society takes great pains to note that the new ads don’t endorse a single-payer system as a cure-all. “The ads aren’t calling for a single-payer system, and advocacy for a single-payer system would be inconsistent with the American Cancer Society because we don’t endorse any particular approach, candidate or party,” he said.

The cancer society’s interest in advancing the health-care reform discussion, Maguire says, comes down to a desire that Americans have “meaningful access” to three decades of significant advances in preventive screening and cancer treatment.

“For too long,” he says, “the health-care dialogue in America has been primarily a political one, and while we’ve been distracted by ideological politics, the problem has grown. … It’s time to take the conversation out of the political realm and … design a system where people can beat cancer and be healthy.”

But aren’t the president and Congress in the political realm? “What it’s going to take is people on both sides or all sides of all aisles rising above those divisions and being able to come together … to come up with a solution,” Maguire says.

To that point, area business and religious leaders are gathering Thursday afternoon at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for a conference titled “Time to Believe: New Alliances for our Health.” The coalition will explore ways to work together on health-care solutions with legislators and members of Congress.

Rising costs lamented
In the 2008 ads, an older Harry and Louise are lamenting the rising costs of health care and the cancer diagnosis of a friend.

Harry: “Health-care costs are up again. Small companies are being forced to cut their plans.”

Louise: “Tell me about it. You know, Lisa’s husband just found out he has cancer.”

Harry: “But he’s covered, right?”

Louise: “No, he just joined a startup and he can’t afford a plan.”

“Too many people are falling through the cracks.”

“Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda — bringing everyone to the table and make it happen.”

Question for readers:
What kind of impact do you think Harry and Louise will have this time around on health-care policy? Will they be able to put it at the top of the next administration’s domestic agenda?

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Flory on 08/20/2008 - 09:28 pm.

    Did you read the article? It doesn’t propose a real or a “faux” solution. It defines a problem.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/20/2008 - 01:35 pm.

    This sounds like YET ANOTHER faux attempt at “reforming” our health care system without addressing the reason it is so much more expensive than the system of any other country and, unlike most other countries, leaves 47 million Americans without care except for what they can beg at emergency rooms.

    We cannot reduce our health care bill and cover everyone as long as we let the for-profit insurance industry manage the system to its own financial advantage. Paul Krugman said a couple of years ago that the industry employs over 2 million persons whose job is to find reasons to deny payment. Most of us have encountered at least one of them.

    The answer that would work? John Conyer’s “Medicare for All” bill, HR 676, phased in over a decade, with huge savings starting in Year 1. Why? Because, like Medicare, its administrative costs would be 2-3% instead of the private insurance industry’s 20-25%.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/21/2008 - 09:54 am.

    Hi Mr. Flory, As I read it, Harry & Louise are talking about “coverage” instead of “care.”

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/23/2008 - 06:14 pm.

    I got angry when I heard about this new ad. The Clinton plan was a crappy bollix of a plan, but at least it was something. It could have covered everyone and gotten fixed, but instead tens of millions have gone without insurance, hundreds of thousands have dies for lack of insurance in the 15 years since they killed Clinton’s plan. So now they want some reform when they feel threatened? My first reaction was “shame on you Harry and Louise”, though with a coarser phrase than “shame on”. You have blood on your hands as far as I’m concerned. A would have applauded a mea culpa from the people who made that ad, but now they just got another paycheck for dragging their disgusting characters back from the astroturf advertising grave. Well, beat it Harry and Louise, and I’m severely toning down my language from what I’m thinking. We don’t need or want you to reform health care. Go give you blood money to someone without insurance.

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