Determining how to repair managed care's battered public image was a recurring theme at last week's meeting of the newly merged Group Health Association of America and the American Managed Care Review Association.
"Are we being redefined by our critics, and what can we do about it?" a managed-care executive asked House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who addressed the Washington meeting.
Gingrich answered that the best thing to do was to allow managed-care patients and physicians to speak for the industry.
"I think in the long run you're not going to have much to worry about," Gingrich said.
But the prediction by Gingrich notwithstanding, there were a lot of plan executives worried about the image of the managed-care industry.
The session opened with the announcement that the merged group was taking a new name, the American Association of Health Plans, which purposely avoids the phrase "managed care."
HealthPartners President George Halvorson, who is also chairman of the AAHP board, said that "managed care" was not part of the new name because it did not "best describe" what plans did. But he added that AAHP executives were also concerned that the phrase did have negative connotations for some patients.
The group also released a series of principles that emphasized that managed care is a "philosophy of health care," and that care is "best provided by networks of healthcare professionals."
Karen Ignagni, the AAHP's president, vowed that managed-care plans would be more aggressive in combating the attacks of "groups that have concerns about changes in the delivery system."
Managed-care executives complained that they were being unfairly criticized on quality issues.
"We are frustrated when we get beat up in the press," said Michael Herbert, president of Physicians Health Services. "Sure there are going to be some anecdotes of incidents that we're not very proud of, but when you look under the rock, you are going to find very little there."
There is evidence that plans should be concerned.
A poll conducted by Republican pollster Linda DiVall, president of American Viewpoint, showed that about as many Americans believe that managed-care plans do a good job of providing quality healthcare at a lower price (39%) as thought they did a poor job (38%).
"I'm not here to tell you to increase your advertising budgets, but it is critically important for managed-care companies to tell your story and have your patients tell their success stories," DiVall said.