Internet users looking for gift cards and other free merchandise are being steered to Web pages inviting them to send e-mails to Congress expressing their views on President Barack Obama's push to reshape the country's health system.
In one instance, people looking for rewards are taken to a Web page run by Get Health Reform Right, a coalition of 10 insurance industry groups that opposes Obama's health overhaul effort. That page lets opponents of the Democratic drive quickly generate a letter to their member of Congress expressing their view.
In another, those applying for gifts can end up on the Web page of the American Medical Association's Patients' Action Network, where they can express support to lawmakers for expanding health care coverage.
The ads could give the impression that someone has to send an e-mail to Congress to get free goods. But based on fine print appearing in the ads, it appears sending the e-mails is optional and would not affect whether people receive the gifts they are seeking.
Nonetheless, officials of the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Association, which runs the insurance coalition, expressed surprise over the ads and said they had nothing to do with them and that the coalition had temporarily suspended its operations "until the source of these ads can be determined." They said the coalition has a contract with an Internet advertising firm to run online ads promoting their views that specifically prohibits ads that would give letter writers financial rewards.
"They're not from the coalition," Alissa Fox, senior vice president and lobbyist for the association, said of the ads. "We don't know who did it."
Spokesman John Ardis of Webclients Affiliate Network, the Harrisburg, Pa.-based online marketing company that has been doing Internet advertising for the insurance coalition, said his firm has placed no ads for the insurers that provide rewards in exchange for writing letters.
Spokespeople for the American Medical Association did not immediately respond to e-mails Thursday evening seeking comment.
Jeff Smokler, executive director of external affairs for the Blue Cross-Blue Shield group, said the coalition has generated nearly 2 million e-mails and letters to Congress since early summer. He said he did not know how many letters, if any, came from the ads that lured letter writers with incentives.
Insurers have been a chief critic of the Democratic effort to overhaul the health care system. They have said the bills emerging in Congress don't do enough to hold down rising health care costs, and have attacked a Senate plan to impose new taxes on the industry and the most expensive policies. They have also complained that a government-run insurance program, which the House bill would create, would drive private insurers out of business.
The ads attracting letter writers with incentives, first reported by Gawker.com, were provided to a reporter by Dan Porter, CEO of OMGPOP, a company that runs a Web site that combines multiplayer Internet games with social networking.
The ads are aimed at people seeking a reward, such as a gift certificate to a retail chain, that they would receive after providing their e-mail addresses and other information. Such ads could also be aimed at people who play online games and would like to earn virtual currency they can use to purchase items they can use in games, Porter said.
After people provide information about themselves, they are taken to a series of Web sites that ask them questions, such as whether they use tobacco.
One of the pages asks people if they want to "tell Congress to get health reform right!" If they check "yes," they are taken to GetHealthReformRight.org, where they can quickly send a prewritten e-mail to their member of Congress expressing opposition to a government-run insurance plan.
Another asks people to answer "yes" or "no" to the statement, "Now is the time to make your voice heard on health system reform."