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Rick Scott: Unsung Conservative Hero of the Health Care Debate

5 years ago
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If you've never heard of Rick Scott, you're not alone. He's hardly a household name. But if you were looking to hire someone with a "can do" entrepreneurial attitude – and experience as chief executive of the largest hospital company in America – Scott would be a stellar candidate.

He also just happens to be the one man arguably most responsible for stalling the rush toward ObamaCare. Early this past spring, Scott's new organization, Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR), began a multimillion-dollar ad campaign designed to defeat government-driven health-care reform.

Since March, CPR has aired numerous TV ads, many of which highlight health-care horror stories from Canada and England, where citizens wait in long lines for treatment and are sometimes denied treatment. Although it remains to be seen whether the United States will follow the European model of health care, when Scott first launched his effort, many observers believed the Democrats' notions on reform would inevitably become law. After all, many of the "stakeholders" -- the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry and major business groups -- had essentially been co-opted.

"When we got started on March second, everyone said, 'You are crazy, the bill is going to pass -- President Obama has the votes – and it'll be passed by May and signed by June,' " Scott told me. At that time, called Scott's efforts at derailment "a long-shot throw."

As those efforts gained traction, however, Scott became a controversial figure – and an administration target. As he's done with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has also sought to undermine Rick Scott's credibility, helpfully directing reporters to the fact that his company, Columbia/HCA, paid a $1.7 billion fine for over-billing state and federal health plans. (The president's aides and other Scott's critics conveniently ignore the fact that several elite non-profits, such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, Yale University Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania Health Services Center, also paid heavy fines for similar reasons.)

In any event, something funny happened on the way to the Obama health care revolution – Scott's message actually started to resonate with everyday Americans. Scott credits the tea-party movement, as well as modern communication miracles such as YouTube, for helping jump-start his efforts to stymie ObamaCare. As he noted in my interview with him, compared to the way things were in 1994, "way more of the population knows what's happening" today.

Scott has made several unorthodox strategic decisions, which left political experts scratching their heads. For example, although CPR did target some ads this past summer specifically at key states, CPR opted to spend the lion's share of its resources on national advertising. This strategy flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Orthodoxy holds that interest groups maximize their influence by funneling resources into a handful of states, such as, say, Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln is a key swing vote, rather than spreading themselves too thin.

But Scott's gamble appears to have paid off. By running a national ad campaign, CPR helped generate the coast-to-coast momentum that led to the August town-hall meeting phenomenon, which ultimately put Democrats back on their heels. Scott continues to monitor the twists and turns in the health care debate. Regarding Harry Reid's plan for an "opt-out" public option, Scott tells me: "It's just cosmetic – you won't be able to opt out – you'll still have the taxes." He is referring to the fact that even if a state opts out of government-run health care, that state's citizens would still have to pay the federal taxes to fund it.

One of the things that set Scott apart has always been his background. An entrepreneur at heart, he believes non-profit hospitals are dreary and inefficient, but he also believes we have great health care in the nation. "If government stays out of the way, we will end up with very organized, very focused providers," he says. Scott should know. His hospitals boasted the lowest cost per patient while simultaneously earning high marks for patient satisfaction (according to a 1995 survey by The Gallup Organization, 94 percent of patients were satisfied with Columbia, compared to the national average of 88 percent).

Scott envisions free-market reforms transforming hospitals into places that deliver top-notch care for a reasonable price. He also believes that the market will lead entrepreneurs to start clinics specializing in certain areas where they can excel. Innovative hospital administrators, he says, will say, "I'm just going to focus on asthma patents. And I'll get great at it. And the prices will come down."

Scott's non-political background also keeps him from adhering to the conventional wisdom of the day. The optimistic Scott also differs with most doom-and-gloom conservatives in that he is not afraid of health care reform passing. "If they actually pass a broad health care bill," he says, "it will be repealed in the next two years. There's nothing in the bill that's driving costs down." This flies in the face of conservative dogma, which maintains that once a liberal "entitlement" is passed, it is never overturned.
Scott believes otherwise. He often does.
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