Who is framing the “Cadillac-plan” debate?

If you’ve turned on the TV this morning you know the networks can’t stop talking about “gold-plated Cadillac plans,” insurance coverage that costs upwards of $10,000 more than the national average.

Senator Kerry has proposed taxing the insurance companies that offer them in order to raise money for universal health coverage. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Kerry’s proposal has thus far received favorable reviews from many congressional leaders, including the wishy-washy Max Baucus.

Yet most other news outlets are telling another story. They have chosen to highlight the detrimental effects of Kerry’s proposal for the middle class and union workers and question it’s ability to raise sufficient funds. Problem is, the stories published by a variety of news outlets (think everyone from FOX News to NPR) all feature the same main characters. And most have ties to health insurance companies.

Take for example, the lead interviewee in CNN’s piece this morning: Paul Fronstin, a senior researcher for the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Fronstin was also featured in a piece by FOX earlier this week explaining why Kerry’s proposal doesn’t make sense:

“We don’t seem to know how many people have Cadillac plans or even very high-cost plans, but we don’t think there are very many of them. So if there aren’t that many plans or people to tax, there isn’t that much revenue to generate.”

It seems odd that Fronstin doesn’t have a clue how many people have gold-plated plans given that EBRI’s membership includes health insurance heavyweights AHIP, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Cigna and Kaiser. In fact, given the organizations that have an interest in EBRI, his statements are probably more an indication that there is a good deal of money to be taxed.

But health insurance companies haven’t left all the work to EBRI. AHIP has gone on the offense against the proposal. AHIP spokesperson Robert Zirkelbach told FOX: “Taxing insurance companies for the benefit package they provide to employees is the same thing as taxing a restaurant if people want to buy steak.”

Other business and healthcare interests are also getting in the act. Ipsita Smolinski (quoted in Reuters) was formerly a health securities analyst at Bear Stearns and JP Morgan and was recently hired by McKenna Long, which lobbies on behalf of a number of health care companies. It appears that she is a health care lobbyist, according to her McKenna bio:

She liaises with key Senate and House members and healthcare staff as well as the relevant personnel at major health regulatory agencies. Smolinski also has extensive knowledge of various issues affecting the health care industry: from health care reform on the macro level to major pharmaceutical issues, medical devices, biotech, health care distribution, hospitals and managed care on the micro level.

Curiously, Reuters doesn’t identify her as such, and reports that she works for an entity called “Capitol Street,” which doesn’t seem to exist.

Others’ ties to the industry are less strong, but still worth considering. For instance, Maine government official Trish Riley (quoted this week by NPR) has served on a commission of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the health care giant’s philanthropic arm.

Reading the news, it appears there is a consensus against the Cadillac plan from a diverse group of people and institutions. In reality, it’s a small group of people framing and dominating the debate. Kerry’s bill is far from perfect, as Merill Goozner at the Health Care Blog reminds us, but if we’re going to have a debate about its merit, let’s be sure to include voices other than the health care industry’s.