Scott takes center stage

SCOTT TAKES CENTER STAGE…. I’m going to guess that in the not too distant future, conservatives are going to regret letting Rick Scott lead the way on health care.

The television ads that began airing last week feature horror stories from Canada and the United Kingdom: Patients who allegedly suffered long waits for surgeries, couldn’t get the drugs they needed, or had to come to the United States for treatment.

“Before government rushes to overhaul health care, listen to those who already have government-run health care,” intones Rick Scott, founder of a group called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. “Tell Congress to listen, too.”

Scott, a multimillionaire investor and controversial former hospital chief executive, has become an unlikely and prominent leader of the opposition to health-care reform plans that Congress is expected to take up later this year. While disorganized Republicans and major health-care companies wait for President Obama and Democratic leaders to reveal the details of their plan before criticizing it, Scott is using $5 million of his own money and up to $15 million more from supporters to try to build resistance to any government-run program.

Scott has hired the public-relations firm behind the Swiftboat lies from 2004, and together they’ve already produced an ad campaign with a message that isn’t even close to reality.

More important, though, is the dynamic of pitting Rick Scott against policy makers committed to reform. Mark Kleiman noted last night, “If I were a Republican, I don’t think this is the ally I’d want to have out front.” Given Scott’s background, he’s making this easy.

The effort has alarmed many Democrats and liberal health-care advocates, who are pushing back with attacks highlighting Scott’s ouster as head of the Columbia/HCA health-care company amid a fraud investigation in the 1990s. The firm eventually pleaded guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans, paying a record $1.7 billion in fines.

In an ad broadcast in the Washington area and in Scott’s home town of Naples, Fla., last week, a group called Health Care for America Now says of Scott: “He and his insurance-company friends make millions from the broken system we have now.”

The group’s national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, said: “Those attacking reform are really looking to protect their own profits, and he’s a perfect messenger for that. His history of making a fortune by destroying quality in the health-care system and ripping off the government is a great example of what’s really going on.”

Kirsch recently added, “He’s a great symbol from our point of view. We cannot have a better first person to attack health care reform than someone who ran a company that ripped off the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Scott is apparently unfazed by this, and this month alone, he’ll spend more than $1 million on his deceptive attack ads. Unlike 1993, insurers, hospitals and other health-care providers are not rushing out to join conservative activists in a negative p.r. campaign, in large part because they want to at least try to have some influence over how the policy is shaped.

This, in turn, makes it easier to characterize opposition to reform as a Scott-led movement. In light of his controversial background, it only helps discredit the proponents of the status quo.