Miami Herald: Campaign donations coloring healthcare debate

Aug 17, 2009

By Alex Leary     

St. Petersburg Times

Aug. 17, 2009 — On a recent Wednesday morning, 1,000 insurance brokers spread out across Capitol Hill with a singular mission: Kill a proposed government-run healthcare plan.

Among them was J. Hyatt Brown, former Florida House speaker and chairman of Brown & Brown Inc., a national brokerage firm based in Daytona Beach.

In a private meeting with his local congresswoman, Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, Brown pressed his case: “The federal government only does one thing better than private enterprise, and that’s war.”

Brown is not just talking. He and others at the firm gave Kosmas $20,000 in campaign contributions during a three-month span this year.

The healthcare debate has triggered a surge in campaign cash. The push has intensified as powerful industry groups try to shape the legislation.

And now it seems increasingly questionable that the public insurance plan will survive, in part due to reluctant Democrats like Kosmas, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and others.

Sunshine state lawmakers have received $709,000 in the first six months of this year from health insurance and medical interests, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis, up $212,000 from the same period in 2008. Of that, $216,000 has come directly from political action committees controlled by Humana and Pfizer and powerful lobbying groups such as the American Health Care Association.

The most money has gone to Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez. This year, Meek has received $254,000 from healthcare interests.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has received $69,500, up $30,000 from two years ago. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Brooksville, has taken in $25,000 from PACs, building on the $42,000 he got in the first six months of the 2008 cycle.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, has seen a $16,000 increase from drug makers and insurers. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has gotten about $20,000 more.


Lawmakers strongly deny the healthcare industry donations have an outsized influence.

“It has absolutely no bearing in how I vote,” said Bilirakis, who opposes the public insurance plan for fear it will hurt small businesses and cost taxpayers too much.

“Congresswoman Kosmas believes that status quo is unsustainable as healthcare costs and insurance premiums are rising at a pace significantly higher than wages,” said Leslie Pollner, Kosmas’ chief of staff. “She has met with constituents and stakeholders in the district and D.C. to hear all sides of the health insurance reform debate.”

And Meek can point to his July 17 vote on the Ways and Means Committee in favor of a bill that includes a public health plan. He says that is the “only way to go,” but also seems open to supporting a final plan with some other type of coverage.

Whatever the lawmakers’ positions, public advocates say voters should know how special interests are coloring the debate.

“It’s everyone’s right to make campaign contributions. It’s everyone’s right to lobby,” said Dave Levinthal with the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group tracking the money. “At the same time, we want to make sure people who are sitting home in Orlando or Tallahassee or Tampa are very much aware of what industries are pressuring Congress.”

Nationally, about $1 million a day is being spent on lobbying while tens of millions have been poured into campaign accounts in recent years. Key lawmakers are seeing the most dramatic spikes. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat overseeing the Senate debate, has received more industry money than almost every other lawmaker.

And Boyd and other conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House have taken in a record amount of money this cycle. Blue Dogs are almost single-handedly responsible for forcing liberal Democrats to scale back the public plan proposal.

Most of the interest groups and lawmakers in both parties agree healthcare reform is needed. But consensus quickly falls away on the best approach.

Drug makers are sponsoring pro-reform ads, and have run TV spots for Kosmas and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, who, like Kosmas, faces a tough reelection campaign. But the companies are fighting proposals that would limit how much they can charge and how quickly generic drug versions can be introduced.

Likewise, insurers support a proposed mandate that all Americans carry insurance. But they do not think they should have to compete with the government.


“They want to turn the national desperation for affordable healthcare into a bill that really boosts their profits,” said Jerry Flanagan, healthcare analyst with Consumer Watchdog, a California advocacy group. “They are getting Congress to do their dirty work.”

Pfizer spokeswoman Sally Beatty said the company wants to push for innovation and reform while maintaining competitiveness. “We believe our bipartisan efforts have played a constructive role in the process, and we will continue to do so,” she said.

So what effect has all the lobbying and money had? That’s difficult to answer as the debate has moved from Capitol Hill to forums across the country.

There is support for the government-run plan, but also staunch opposition evident at the raucous town hall meetings being held during the August congressional recess.

The hard choices lawmakers face are symbolized by Kosmas, who has received almost $44,000 in healthcare-related donations this year.

President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are pushing hard for the government-run health insurance option even as the Senate is backing away. For it to survive, they need a unified Democratic front.

But Kosmas comes from a district that leans Republican, and the GOP is fighting to regain her seat in 2010. Supporting a government expansion during a time of bailouts and huge deficits could deal her congressional career a death blow.

For now, Kosmas has avoided saying anything too specific. In in a recent newspaper column she signaled skepticism of the government insurance option, which could cost $1 trillion or more over a decade.

“I always have been committed to fiscal responsibility, and I am concerned independent analysis shows that no bill before Congress does enough to lower costs over the long term while being deficit neutral,” she wrote in Florida Today on Aug. 9.

That may be what Brown, the insurance broker who visited her in July, wants to hear. But he insists his financial support of Kosmas is based on their long friendship and his belief that she is a good voice in Washington.

“We are involved in the political process,” he said, “and the political process runs on green.”