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White House Email Program Stumbles, and Conservatives Get in Their Kicks

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, August 18 2009

The chum was already in the water. The White House's call for "fishy" emails earlier this month had some on the right floating the idea that the Obama Administration was keeping tabs on its political opponents. Rush Limbaugh bandied about the term "snitch website." Fox News Vice President Bill Sammon referred to "some kind of an enemies list." But this weekend turned into a full-on Fox News-fueled feeding frenzy after some Americans found in their inbox an email from senior White House Advisor David Axelrod. Under the subject Something worth forwarding, Axelrod bemoaned "old tactics" against health care reform, like viral emails that circulate under the radar. (The full email text is down below.) Axelrod's new media-savvy counter tactic? "Let's start a chain email of our own."

By the White House's own admission, some people got the Axelrod email who never opted onto a White House email list. Those unwanted emails, coupled with the email monitoring effort, has turned this into scandal du jour on the right. We're at the point in the evolution of this controversy where, this morning, White House new media director Macon Phillips' photo was featured like a mug shot front and center on FoxNews.com.

The Obama presidential campaign was, of course, celebrated for an email program that together a network of more than 10 million supporters and also raised historic amounts of campaign cash. What that means is that, under the theory of attacking your enemy's strength, the Obama White House's email program a plump and juicy target for political opponents. As the Obama presidency builds its own in-house email operation from scratch -- seeking to connect with not only supporters but adversaries, the indifferent, and the merely curious -- it hasn't been without certain complications.

In this case, the White House has been quick to say that only email addresses collected through its official website are added to its email distribution program; neither campaign email addresses nor paid-for lists have, they say, been used. Attempting to contain the controversy, Phillips blogged on WhiteHouse.gov last night that "[W]e have never -- and will never -- add names from a commercial or political list to the White House list." White House.gov's contact form includes the option to join the White House email list, as do other various web forms and participation forums on the site.

So, someone writing an angry screed to Obama might well find themselves added to the White House mailing list. There certainly are occasions in the records of political email programs where adversaries using a web form to lodge a complaint get upset when they find themselves on their opponent's contact lists.

And unlike the campaign, the Obama White House's email list is undifferentiated. In other words, supporters and opponents alike are getting the same messaging from the White House, whether its about the health care reform push in Congress or the latest on the H1N1 flu virus. The one-size-fits-all email program creates an added messiness.

That said, the White House acknowledges that, indeed, some people have been inappropriately added to the White House email program without ever having contacted the White House. They trace the problem addresses back to a handful of IP addresses that had submitted email addresses in bulk through a WhiteHouse.gov contact form.

The White House scrambled on Sunday to get a CAPTCHA filter up and running. The new form checks for the involvement of a real-live human before allowing the form to be submitted. New media director Macon Phillips says in a blog post explaining the program, "We’re certainly not interested in anyone receiving emails from the White House who don’t want them."

A representative from Capitol Advantage, whose CapWiz program is one of the most popular ways of contacting government representatives online, tells me that the company is confident that they had nothing to do with passing unwanted email addresses en masse to the White House.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to White House counsel Greg Craig to express his concern about how the Obama White House is managing its email operation. "I am concerned about the possibility that political email address lists are being used for official purposes," wrote Issa. This wouldn't be the first Republican-led congressional investigation into mailing lists. Under Chairman Dan Burton (R-IN), the House Government Reform Committee spent years investigating the Clinton White House's Christmas card list.

Blogged Phillips last night, "Despite reports by some bloggers and others in the media that have invoked a variety of sinister conspiracy theories, more people signed up for updates last week than during the entire month of July." Will conservative's full-throated criticisms of the White House program have a chilling effect? Time will tell. Axelrod "chain" email was the 11th sent by the Obama White House to its list. They haven't sent one since.

FULL TEXT OF AXELROD'S EMAIL:

Dear Friend,

This is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever sent, but it could be the most important.

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually been proposed.”

So let’s start a chain email of our own. At the end of my email, you’ll find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.

Thanks,
David

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to the President

P.S. We launched www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck this week to knock down the rumors and lies that are floating around the internet. You can find the information below, and much more, there. For example, we've just added a video of Nancy-Ann DeParle from our Health Reform Office tackling a viral email head on. Check it
out:

Health Insurance Reform Reality Check

8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage

  1. Ends Discrimination for Pre-Existing Conditions: Insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.
  2. Ends Exorbitant Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays: Insurance companies will have to abide by yearly caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.
  3. Ends Cost-Sharing for Preventive Care: Insurance companies must fully cover, without charge, regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms or eye and foot exams for diabetics.
  4. Ends Dropping of Coverage for Seriously Ill: Insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.
  5. Ends Gender Discrimination: Insurance companies will be prohibited from charging you more because of your gender.
  6. Ends Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage: Insurance companies will be prevented from placing annual or lifetime caps on the coverage you receive.
  7. Extends Coverage for Young Adults: Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through the age of 26.
  8. Guarantees Insurance Renewal: Insurance companies will be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays their premium in full. Insurance companies won't be allowed to refuse renewal because someone became sick.

Learn more and get details: http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/health-insurance-consumer-protections/

8 common myths about health insurance reform

  1. Reform will stop "rationing" - not increase it: It’s a myth that reform will mean a "government takeover" of health care or lead to "rationing." To the contrary, reform will forbid many forms of rationing that are currently being used by insurance companies.
  2. We can’t afford reform: It's the status quo we can't afford. It’s a myth that reform will bust the budget. To the contrary, the President has identified ways to pay for the vast majority of the up-front costs by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse within existing government health programs; ending big subsidies to insurance companies; and increasing efficiency with such steps as coordinating care and streamlining paperwork. In the long term, reform can help
    bring down costs that will otherwise lead to a fiscal crisis.
  3. Reform would encourage "euthanasia": It does not. It’s a malicious myth that reform would encourage or even require euthanasia for seniors. For seniors who want to consult with their family and physicians about end-of life decisions, reform will help to cover these voluntary, private consultations for those who want help with these personal and difficult family decisions.
  4. Vets' health care is safe and sound: It’s a myth that health insurance reform will affect veterans' access to the care they get now. To the contrary, the President's budget significantly expands coverage under the VA, extending care to 500,000 more veterans who were previously excluded. The VA Healthcare system will continue to be available for all eligible veterans.
  5. Reform will benefit small business - not burden it: It’s a myth that health insurance reform will hurt small businesses. To the contrary, reform will ease the burdens on small businesses, provide tax credits to help them pay for employee coverage and help level the playing field with big firms who pay much less to cover their employees on average.
  6. Your Medicare is safe, and stronger with reform: It’s myth that Health Insurance Reform would be financed by cutting Medicare benefits. To the contrary, reform will improve the long-term financial health of Medicare, ensure better coordination, eliminate waste and unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies, and help to close the Medicare "doughnut" hole to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors.
  7. You can keep your own insurance: It’s myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan or force you to change doctors. To the contrary, reform will expand your choices, not eliminate them.
  8. No, government will not do anything with your bank account: It is an absurd myth that government will be in charge of your bank accounts.  Health insurance reform will simplify administration, making it easier and more convenient for you to pay bills in a method that you choose.  Just like paying a phone bill or a utility bill, you can pay by traditional check, or by a direct electronic payment. And forms will be standardized so they will be easier to
    understand. The choice is up to you – and the same rules of privacy will apply as they do for all other electronic payments that people make.

Learn more and get details:
http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck
http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck/faq

8 Reasons We Need Health Insurance Reform Now

  1. Coverage Denied to Millions: A recent national survey estimated that 12.6 million non-elderly adults – 36 percent of those who tried to purchase health insurance directly from an insurance company in the individual insurance market – were in fact discriminated against because of a pre-existing condition in the previous three years or dropped from coverage when they became seriously ill. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/denied_coverage/index.html
  2. Less Care for More Costs: With each passing year, Americans are paying more for health care coverage. Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums have nearly doubled since 2000, a rate three times faster than wages. In 2008, the average premium for a family plan purchased through an employer was $12,680, nearly the annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage job.  Americans pay more than ever for health insurance, but get less coverage. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/hiddencosts/index.html
  3. Roadblocks to Care for Women: Women’s reproductive health requires more regular contact with health care providers, including yearly pap smears, mammograms, and obstetric care. Women are also more likely to report fair or poor health than men (9.5% versus 9.0%). While rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are similar to men, women are twice as likely to suffer from headaches and are more likely to experience joint, back or neck
    pain. These chronic conditions often require regular and frequent treatment and follow-up care. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/women/index.html
  4. Hard Times in the Heartland: Throughout rural America, there are nearly 50 million people who face challenges in accessing health care. The past several decades have consistently shown higher rates of poverty, mortality, uninsurance, and limited access to a primary health care provider in rural areas. With the recent economic downturn, there is potential for an increase in many of the health disparities and access concerns that are already elevated in rural
    communities. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/hardtimes
  5. Small Businesses Struggle to Provide Health Coverage: Nearly one-third of the uninsured – 13 million people – are employees of firms with less than 100 workers. From 2000 to 2007, the proportion of non-elderly Americans covered by employer-based health insurance fell from 66% to 61%. Much of this decline stems from small business. The percentage of small businesses offering coverage dropped from 68% to 59%, while large firms held stable at 99%. About a
    third of such workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees obtain insurance through a spouse. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/helpbottomline
  6. The Tragedies are Personal: Half of all personal bankruptcies are at least partly the result of medical expenses. The typical elderly couple may have to save nearly $300,000 to pay for health costs not covered by Medicare alone. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/inaction
  7. Diminishing Access to Care: From 2000 to 2007, the proportion of non-elderly Americans covered by employer-based health insurance fell from 66% to 61%. An estimated 87 million people - one in every three Americans under the age of 65 - were uninsured at some point in 2007 and 2008. More than 80% of the uninsured are in working families. Learn more: http://www.healthreform.gov/reports/inaction/diminishing/index.html
  8. The Trends are Troubling: Without reform, health care costs will continue to skyrocket unabated, putting unbearable strain on families, businesses, and state and federal government budgets. Perhaps the most visible sign of the need for health care reform is the 46 million Americans currently without health insurance - projections suggest that this number will rise to about 72 million in 2040 in the absence of reform. Learn more: http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/assets/documents/CEA_Health_Care_Report.pdf