News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 21, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: A story of just one corporate lobby ‘investing in advocacy’

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — For those of you who know in your marrow that the president’s attempt to overhaul the U.S. health care system proves his socialist agenda, take the day off. What reporter Drew Armstrong of Bloomberg News shared this past week will be of no interest to you.

Everybody else, take a look at the perfectly legal process of corporate power quietly buying the legislation it desires. And keep the process in mind as the newly configured Congress tries to dismantle the health care reform act in the name of “the American people.”

Armstrong’s report sprang from the annual public disclosure of tax records that is required of organizations under federal law. Specifically, he dug into the 2009 records of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a whopping, one-source donation of $86.2 million given to the Chamber last year. The gift, wrote Armstrong, “accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber’s $214.6 million in 2009 expenditures.”

The generous donor? Although unidentified on the tax disclosure forms (it’s not required), sources confirmed to Armstrong that the Chamber’s Daddy Warbucks was America’s Health Insurance Plans. That is the lobbying group that represents such companies as Cigna Corp., UnitedHealth Group Inc., Humana Inc., Aetna and WellPoint Inc., the insurance giant based in Indianapolis.

“The spending on the Chamber exceeded the insurer group’s entire budget from a year earlier …” Armstrong reported, and “reflects the insurers’ attempts to influence the [health care reform] bill … after Democrats in Congress and the White House put more focus on regulation of the insurance industry.”

Armstrong queried America’s Health Insurance Plans about the lobby’s huge donation. A spokesman for the group, Robert Zirkelbach, responded in an e-mail: “With so much at stake we, like other major stakeholders, invested in advocacy. We supported a number of leading health-care advocacy organizations and coalitions that shared our views.”

Zirkelbach “declined to answer other questions on the money.” So did the members represented by the lobbying group. Not one contacted by Armstrong deigned to comment. Why would they? The law says they and their influential millions may remain as silent as sphinxes and as anonymous as Mafia hit men.

Armstrong compared the $86.2 million with previous big donations to the Chamber and found that it “dwarfs” them, including two other unidentified, one-source donations of $15.4 million in 2008 and $4.5 million in 2009.

A former chairman of the Federal Election Commission characterized the $86.2 million as a “breathtaking” amount of money. Trevor Potter, the former FEC official, now heads the political activity practice at Caplin & Drysdale law firm. He explained to Armstrong why the insurers’ group chose the anonymous route for fighting the health care bill: “It enables you to have it both ways. They clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”

In addition, Armstrong wrote, “By funneling the money through the Chamber, insurers were able to remain at the table negotiating with Democrats while still getting the bill criticized.”

Staying at the table worked well for the insurance industry. Any notion of a government-sponsored coverage plan being among the choices in the health care bill died a quick and sure death.

Long, long ago, in the winter of 2008, nearly every reputable opinion poll found health care reform among the top five concerns of Democrats, Republicans and independents. In 2007, health care premiums had risen 6.1 percent, more than double the rate of inflation, and nearly 2.5 percent more than the average increase in workers’ wages. There also was the reality of 47 million uninsured Americans, of emergency rooms used by the working poor for chronic care, of dropped coverage and illness-induced bankruptcies.

Most people were convinced the United States could do better. The rub has always been “how.”

In March 2008, on her info-packed, Maggie Mahar combed an exhaustive 2007 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which shows why people on the bottom two rungs of a five-rung U.S. economic ladder see affordable health care as more critical than do people on the upper rungs.

The author of “Money-driven Medicine: The Real Reasons Health Care Costs So Much,” Mahar found that lower wage earners not only have less access to quality coverage plans through their employers, but also they must spend a greater percentage of their gross incomes (10 to 20 percent) for even poor-quality coverage than higher earners spend (3.6 to 5 percent) for their superior plans.

“Bottom line: forty percent of the population is forced to lay out significantly more than it can afford to cover necessary medical expenditures,” she wrote.

Mahar further noted that the disparity between the top 20 percent and bottom 20 percent of U.S. wage earners is far greater now than in most developed nations: a 6-to-1 average ratio for other countries, a 9-to-1 ratio for us. Consequently, “more and more Americans see each other as one of  ‘them’ — not one of ‘us.’”

Nicholas Kristof echoed that view last week in the New York Times, as he addressed the effects of the top 10 percent of American earners controlling more than 70 percent of our citizens’ total net worth. Historically, such disparity elsewhere in the world, “where the rich just don’t care about those below the decks,” has produced “nations without a social fabric or sense of national unity,” Kristof wrote. “Huge concentrations of wealth corrode the soul of any nation.”

The spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans told Drew Armstrong that his multi-corporation constituency had simply “invested in advocacy” with its reported $84.2 million contribution to the U.S. Chamber. Consider that in light of the report analyzed by Maggie Mahar, in which the bottom two rungs of the U.S. economic ladder had annual household incomes of $25,000 or less.

Think of the advocacy those folks can buy.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or