Some speak out, others make satirical videos

The stunt was worthy of something dreamed up by a Hollywood press agent of yesteryear: A group of health reform activists quietly infiltrated a D.C. meeting of health insurance executives and, one by one, added their voices to a growing chorus of a satirical version of “Tomorrow” from “Annie.”

The antics, from the group Billionaires for Wealthcare, was a bit of showmanship in a health care debate that has until only recently been scarce in showbiz moments.

Given that entertainment figures flock to Capitol Hill to press for funding for causes and cures for all sorts of diseases — and that more than a few have played medical pros on TV — celebrity activists have been more hesitant to wade too far into the health care fray in the way that they have on other issues, like the environment, or certainly like last year’s presidential campaign.

There’s a good reason: Health care is the type of domestic issue that inflames passions andsuspicions and causes polarization. It’s not for the thin-skinned. The few Hollywood figures who have made treks to Washington, like Fran Drescher and “Nurse Jackie” star Edie Falco, have done so at their own peril.

Unlike most ultra-serious showbiz campaigns, these have been dominated by satire.

Last month, MoveOn unveiled a comic spot, “Track Meet,” with Heather Graham providing a metaphorical depiction of the “public option,” a government-run plan that would compete with private insurers. Another humorous video from Rock the Vote featured “Scrubs” stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison urging twentysomethings to sign a petition to demand “bold, real reform.”

The humor site Funny or Die produced a mock PSA, “Protect Insurance Companies,” featuring Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde riffing on highly paid insurance industry execs.

Produced in conjunction with MoveOn, that vid generated more than 2.8 million views — and, showing just how fervent opinions are out there, a series of response videos that attacked the performers as hypocrites, or even questioned their right to speak out on such an issue.

All the videos came out after the peak of the town hall fervor against health care reform, and the rumors of death panels and pulling the plug on grandma.

“The vast majority of Americans want (the public option), and I think there was some mixed messaging going on that prevented people from realizing what it was,” says Funny or Die head of production Mike Farah. President Obama’s campaign deployed Hollywood figures across the country, but their official involvement in the health care debate is more subtle this time around.

Via Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee is hosting a competition to create a reform video, and announced 20 finalists last week that will be judged by the public and a panel of creatives like Seth MacFarlane, Kate Walsh and Will.i.am. The winning ad will appear as a national television spot to be shown as Congress debates the bills.

Since the summer, Falco has appeared in PSAs for Health Care for America Now and has lobbied on Capitol Hill for the public option, as well as on conference calls and at rallies. Even as she deferred to the org’s experts in talking about details, her appearances generated spirited criticism on the right.

Ken Sunshine, whose New York P.R. firm straddles the political and entertainment worlds, says the lack of famous figures chiming in on health care has less to do with the fear of angering fans than it does getting involved in an issue that has been a moving target. The politics of reform are complex, confusing all but those very well versed in Capitol Hill personalities and procedure.

“I think in some ways it is not as sexy as other issues and as tangible as other issues,” Sunshine says. “It is more complicated. But it is extremely complicated to everybody, not just the celebrity world.”

Sunshine also points out that health care advocacy groups don’t have as many ties to industry activists as do other groups, like environmental organizations.

Drescher has ventured onto Fox News to debate reform with Sean Hannity, but she also has extensive lobbying experience through her org, Cancer Schmancer.

On Sept. 16, Paul Simon appeared with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a heavily publicized Capitol Hill event, but Simon also has a long record on health care issues as co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, and his purpose was to press for remembering the needs of children, not so much the intricacies of such flashpoints as public option plans vs. co-ops.

“Paul has been very involved for quite a long time,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, who co-founded the org with Simon in 1987. “The tendency of the press has been to pooh-pooh the involvement of celebrities But Paul has been treated as an advocate with a general intelligence about the issues and someone who is well informed.”

The org does plan to issue a report card on the House and Senate bills and how they affect children’s medical needs.

On the other side of the aisle, the debate has featured such personalities as Chuck Norris and Jon Voight, who have cast Democratic reform proposals as another step in Obama’s efforts to socialize large aspects of the economy. “Obamacare is about the government’s coming into homes and usurping parental rights over child care and development,” Norris wrote on Townhall.com in August.

Such stridency has come from the left as well, although it would be very surprising if it stayed out of the debate. Politically charged filmmakers Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald have pushed aggressively against insurance companies and for reform. Some off-camera industry figures, like agent Mitch Kaplan, a member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, have been heavily lobbying on the Hill.

And despite all the fervor, Sunshine challenges the notion that there is even a significant risk in entering the fray.

“I represent successful artists who have been outspoken on a variety of issues, and they keep getting more successful,” he says, adding, “It is outrageous to play it safe in a world where nothing is very safe.”

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