WASHINGTON – You don’t have to buy a magazine to enter a Washington vacation sweepstakes. You just have to write your senator.

Opponents of a health care bill are offering a free trip to the capital as an incentive to generate letters to Congress. Criticism prompted them to halt advertising on Wednesday, but they still have to go through with the contest.

The “America Speaks Sweepstakes” by www.protectyourhealthcare.org had been popping up on various Internet sites.

“Congress is considering a new law that will take away nearly every health protection you now have,” the sweepstakes offer reads. “Complete the form below to send a free fax to Congress and be automatically entered in the America Speaks Sweepstakes.”

At issue is a White House-backed bill to let small businesses band together through national trade associations to offer insurance for their employees. It passed the House last week and is now in the Senate.

The sweepstakes offer riled Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, head of the Senate Small Business Committee. She warned colleagues Wednesday to beware of letters about the health care bill, which she is sponsoring.

“The large insurance companies are pumping their money into defeating this bill with gimmicks like this sweepstakes,” Snowe wrote senators.

Another sponsor, Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent, said: “It’s out of bounds.”

“You can’t offer people a financial incentive, because you’re not going to get a true reading of people’s feelings,” he said. “We don’t know whether it’s a true reflection of their sentiment or whether they just want a trip to Washington.”

The promotion is paid for by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. It leads a coalition, which includes the AFL-CIO and the National Governors Association, that is opposed to the bill.

After The Associated Press called to ask about the promotion, Blue Cross said advertising would stop, although the offer cannot legally be withdrawn. A letter is not required for entry.

“We will still honor it, but I think that given the attention it’s received, we don’t want to deflect from the real issue at hand, which remains our concern with association health plan legislation,” said John Parker, a spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a major provider of coverage for small businesses.

The legislation would waive minimum standards under state laws, which often insist on coverage for services such as mammograms, obstetrician care and mental health, mandatory appeals when claims are denied and limits on how much older or sicker groups can be charged.

Supporters say the plan will result in health insurance for many of the nation’s 41 million uninsured. An estimated 60 percent of Americans without health insurance work for small businesses or depend on someone who does, supporters say.

Proponents are led by small businesses and their biggest industry group, the National Federation of Independent Business.

The advertising firm handling the www.protectyourhealthcare.org account – e-advocates – said the sweepstakes technique is increasingly common.

Firm principal Pam Fielding described similar promotions, such as a Rolling Stones concert ticket sweepstakes by the National Resources Defense Council to encourage messages to Congress and the White House. Another Web site, www.gopteamleader.com, has a reward system for completing “action items” that can earn leather PDA covers, folding chairs and duffel bags.

“These are common techniques designed to get the attention of an activist long enough to read about the issue and decide where they stand on it,” Fielding said. “We are not the first to do it, and I’m quite sure we will not be the last.”

AP-ES-06-25-03 1906EDT

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