The Politicization of Pharma, and Other Health Care Corporations – Walk on the Dark (Money) Side

Introduction – Health Care Corporations Profess Social Responsibility

As we noted recently, large health corporations, which deal with patients, health professionals, and government regulators, usually profess their social resonsibility.  For example,

Giant health care insurance company Aetna advertises its social corporate responsibility, including

As a health care leader, we believe that our corporate responsibility starts with helping people live healthier lives. And that means using our resources to make the communities and world we live in better places.

and,

Our social responsibility efforts encompass how we treat our employees, improve the lives of customers, and effect positive change in community health.

Similarly, giant pharmaceutical company Merck advertises its corporate social responsibility,

Corporate responsibility is at the heart of our company’s mission to discover, develop and provide innovative products and services that save and improve lives. It underscores our commitment to developing and rewarding our employees, protecting the environment, and operating with the highest standards of ethics and transparency.

Of course, in the policy arena, large health care corporations also tend to advocate for policies that are to their financial advantage.  Furthermore, top executives of large corporations have been known to donate to political candidates who favor their policy positions, although they often seemed to consciously spread their donations out to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

However, as the current US political chaos leads to more journalistic investigation, there is increasing evidence that large health care corporations have been secretly backing policy positions that do not correspond to their high-minded public statements about corporate social resonsibility, and are becoming quite political, even partisan in the process.  They do so through the use of dark money

Health Care Corporations Giving to Dark Money Organizations: Dark Money Illuminated

Dark money
is meant to be secret, of course.  So it is not easy to find anything
out about who gives to dark money organizations, and to whom they give
in turn. 
 However, recently Issue One produced a report entitled “Dark Money Illuminated.” It was based on an extensive attempt to pierce the veil hiding dark money. Its introduction states:

Dark money groups hold enormous sway over what issues are, and are not, debated in Congress and on the campaign trail. But the donors behind these groups rarely discuss their motivations for bankrolling these efforts, leaving the public in the dark about who funds these increasingly prominent and potent organizations.

To attempt to get the most accurate picture of the scope of dark money influence on US politics, its authors:

reviewed FEC filings, tax returns, annual reports submitted by labor unions to the Department of Labor, documents submitted to Congress by registered lobbyists, corporate filings, press releases and other sources.

This allowed them:

to be able to identify transactions — and donors — that have never previously been associated with these dark money groups.

So they were able to identify the 15 largest dark money groups in terms of donations received, and to get data on a substantial numer of donations to them, albeit likely only a fraction of the donations to dark money groups that have been made, from 2010 to 2017.  Health care corporations turned out to be major suppliers of funding to dark money group according to this data.  The report includes a summary of the top 67 donors to dark money groups, which included:

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the pharmaceutical industry trade association, donated over $13 million.

Aetna, a large for-profit health insurance company, donated over $8.5 million.

Merck, a large pharmaceutical firm, donated over $4 million.

Anthem, a large for-profit insurance company, donated $2 million.

Perusal of the whole data base revealed significant donations by many more health care corporations (list below includes the three companies listed above).

Aetna$3.3 million to the American Action Network

Express Scripts $75K to Americans for Tax Reform

American Healthcare LLC$5K to Patriot Majority USA

Abbott Laboratories  – $500K to US Chamber of Commerce (USCC)

AbbeVie$250K to USCC

Aetna$5.3M to USCC

Allergan$55K to USCC

Amgen$302K to USCC

Anthem$2M to USCC

Celgene$262.5K to USCC

Cigna$325K to USCC

CVS$825K to USCC

Eli Lilly $350K to USCC

Express Scripts $150K to USCC

Gilead$13K to USCC

Johnson & Johnson$475K to USCC

Merck$4.4M to USCC

Mylan$210K to USCC

Procter & Gamble$500K to USCC

UnitedHealth$252K to USCC

Zimmer Biomet$75K to USCC

Where Does the Money Go?

As is evident above, health care companies donated to a limited number of the big 15 dark money organizations, the American Action Network, Americans for Tax Reform, Patriot Majority USA, but mostly the US Chamber of Commerce.

The first two organizations were all identified by Issue One as affiliated with right-wing / Republican/ pro-Trump causes.

American Action Network

the American Action Network was not publicly rolled out by high-profile Republicans until February 2010 — one month after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The self-described ‘action tank’ was founded by veteran Republican fundraiser Fred Malek, the former Marriott Hotels president and CEO who has helped raise campaign cash for a number of GOP presidential candidates over the years.

Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota served as the American Action Network’s first CEO and is still the chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

Brian Walsh — the former political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee who helped Republicans win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 — served as the president of the American Action Network between 2011 and 2015.

The group’s current executive director is Corry Bliss, who managed Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s successful re-election campaign in 2016.  



Americans for Tax Reform

Originally founded in July 1985 to promote President Ronald Reagan’s proposal for tax reform, Americans for Tax Reform remains a powerful lobbying organization today that also frequently spends money in elections to aid Republican candidates. The group’s founder and president is Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who once boasted that his goal was to get government ‘down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.’

In 1994, Norquist was one of the co-authors of the ‘Contract with America,’ the campaign platform that helped the GOP win control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in more than forty years and helped elevate Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), another co-author, to the position of Speaker of the House.

Americans for Tax Reform’s primary advocacy tool is its ‘Taxpayer Protection Pledge,’ which asks politicians at the local, state and national level to “make a written commitment to oppose any and all tax increases.”

The third group, to which only one donor gave only $5K, was identified with Democratic / left-wing causes.

Patriot Majority USA

Patriot Majority USA, a 501(c)(4) ‘social welfare’ organization that often spends money in elections to aid Democratic candidates, was founded in March 2011 by political consultant Craig Varoga, a Democrat with strong ties to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). To wit: Varoga led an independent group that helped Reid win his contentious re-election race in 2010.

The fourth organization, the one to which most of the health care corporate donors gave the most money, is in a class of its own.  The Issue One description of it was

US Chamber of Commerce

the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks as one of the nation’s largest and most powerful lobbying groups, with an ornate headquarters in Washington, D.C., just a block from the White House.

A trade association organized under Section 501(c)(6) of the tax code, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce mostly endorses Republican candidates, although it occasionally supports business-friendly Democrats. The group says it represents more than 3 million businesses across the country and has a membership of approximately 300,000.

The USCC has received much – probably unwanted – publicity about its efforts to help President Trump’s controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.  An October 4, 2018, article in the Intercept included:

Business groups with interests before the U.S. Supreme Court have orchestrated a multifaceted campaign to pressure the Senate to swiftly confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court. The advocacy reaches across the influence economy of Washington, D.C., with the largest corporate lobbying groups and billionaires working in concert with Republican operatives to elevate Kavanaugh to a lifetime posting atop the judiciary.

Few businesses, however, have stamped their names on the effort. Most major corporations and wealthy donors are instead using 501(c) nonprofit groups that do not require donor transparency to air upward of $15 million in reported advertising spending in order to convince the public to support Kavanaugh’s nomination. Other conservative groups contributing to the ad war have not disclosed how much they are spending, likely bringing the total much higher.

Among the groups publicly campaigning for Kavanaugh to be confirmed are the giants of pro-business lobbying — organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. Lesser-known, business-funded political groups, such as the Republican Attorneys General Association, are also spearheading campaigns.

The article also said this specifically about the US Chamber of Commerce

The powerful lobby announced in August that it would mobilize support for Kavanaugh, claiming it would score support for Kavanaugh as a ‘key vote’ in evaluating members of Congress. The Chamber spends tens of millions of dollars every election cycle against lawmakers who cross them on major votes.

One wonders whether patients or health care professionals who must deal with large health care corporations have any idea that these companies are promoting partisian causes, mostly right-wing/ Republican/ pro-Trump causes?  One wonders whether the employees and small stockholders of these corporations likewise have any idea about this?

Summary and Discussion

This is now the fourth time we have discussed the role of dark money in health care.  In 2012 we discussed a case of “dark money” being used to conceal sources of support for particular health policy and political positions.  Earlier this year,  we discussed
the case of huge pharmacy chain CVS,which proclaims its “social
responsibility,” and its policy of only making charitable contributions
to improve “health and healthcare nationwide.”  Yet CVS was donating to
America First Policies, a supposed non-profit group devoted to promoting
the partisan agenda of President Trump, including “repealing and
replacing Obamacare,” and immigration policies such as building the
“wall” and deporting  “illegal immigrants.” (Note that these CVS dark money contributions were separate from those discussed above.)  Ten days ago we discussed how the pharmaceutical trade organization, PhRMA, and some large drug companies donated money to a dark money organization to combat a state initiative to limit pharmaceutical prices, but also to the American Action Network (see above) to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA, “Obamacare”) despite their previous support for and then current neutrality on the ACA.

Now it appears that health care corporations often donate large amounts to dark money organizations, and as best as we can tell now, nearly all the donations and all the money go to organizations that support right-wing/ Republican/ and now pro-Trump causes.  Many of these causes seem to openly conflict with the corporations’ promises of social responsibility.  The slanting of these efforts towards one end of the political spectrum, one party, and now the current president suggest that these corporations may have partisan agendas.

Note that without the various ongoing investigative efforts mainly inspired by the actions of the Trump administration, we would have little idea that this was going on.

I hope that such investigations continue.

Furthermore, the increasing knowledge of these corporate actions raises a big question: cui bono? who benefits?

It is obvious why a pharmaceutical company, for example, might want to defeat legislation that would lower its prices.

It is not obvious why it would want to consistenly support actions by one party, or by people at one end of the political spectrum.

The obvious hypothesis is that these donations, which must be orchestrated by top corporate management, and which are not disclosed to employees or smaller corporate shareholders, are likely made to support the top managers’ self interest.

Thus not only is more investigation needed, at the very least, “public” corporations ought to fully disclose all donations made to outside groups with political agendas.  This should be demanded by at least the corporations’ employees and shareholders, but also by patients, health care professionals, and the public at large.

Meanwhile we are left with the suspicion that top health care corporate management is increasingly merging with the current administration in one giant corporatist entity which is not in the interests of health care, much less government by the people, of the people, and for the people. 

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Musical interlude: “On the Dark Side,” Eddie and the Cruisers

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