A Blue Cross CEO Encouraged a Michigan Woman to Get Into Politics. Now She’s Running for Governor and Says Single Payer Is Unrealistic.

Gretchen Whitmer reveals close ties to the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in a 2015 interview.

FILE - In this April 12, 2018, file photo, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer speaks with reporters outside the state elections bureau in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer faces Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed in the Aug. 7, 2018 primary. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer speaks with reporters outside the state elections bureau in Lansing, Mich., on April 12, 2018. Photo: David Eggert/AP

Health care has become a major issue in Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial primary race, with two out of three candidates — medical doctor Abdul El-Sayed and businessman Shri Thanedar — both promising to enact a single-payer health care system.

Thanedar’s support of single payer appears purely ornamental: He’s offered no details, and in an interview with The Intercept, seemed to confuse federal- and state-level single-payer plans, as well as the distinction between single payer and Medicare expansion. By contrast, the plan put forward by El-Sayed, who is the former health director for the city of Detroit, is one of the most comprehensive state-level plans that has been introduced.

But where Thanedar’s support for single payer appears to be purely performative, the third candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination, former Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer, doesn’t think single payer is viable at all — at least not anytime soon. “I don’t oppose that,” she told Crain’s Detroit Business, which asked her about single-payer health care, “but it’s not a real option right now. … The projections tell us it’s not realistic in Michigan at this moment.”

It’s possible that Whitmer’s opposition to single payer might not be rooted in practical concerns, but in personal ones. Her father, Richard Whitmer, was president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan between 1988 and 2006. And in March, lobbyists for the company held a fundraiser for the Whitmer campaign. “The vibrancy of Michigan’s economic climate is driven by public policy put forward by our state’s Governor; and we believe Gretchen Whitmer will be a great leader for Michigan,” the lobbyists said in the invitation announcing the fundraiser, which was on Whitmer letterhead.

The Intercept has now unearthed an interview from 2015 in which Whitmer revealed that her “friend Dan Loepp,” the current president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, was the first person to suggest she run for office:

Q: What has made it possible for you to get where you are today?

A: Fortunately, I have been mentored by many great leaders throughout my life. I count both of my parents among them. As a candidate for the House, I was extremely fortunate to have someone like Frank J Kelley, our former Attorney General, support me and advise me along the way. I know how a few words of encouragement can open up so much possibility. My friend Dan Loepp was the first to suggest that I think about running for office, and both my parents quickly voiced their support. Before that it had not really dawned on me and that is why I make such an effort to encourage people to engage in this process and to run for office.

Whitmer first ran for the state House in the 1990s when Loepp was a chief of staff to Democratic House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr.

The BCBS fundraiser earlier this year is a sign that this relationship may still be going strong and illustrates how the Democratic establishment and the company are, in Whitmer’s case, literally friends and family.

After being asked about her ties to BCBS, a spokesperson for Whitmer’s campaign emphasized the candidate’s work with incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to expand Medicaid. He also pointed to Whitmer’s campaign promise to end Michigan’s drug immunity law, which makes it difficult to sue pharmaceutical companies.

“When Gretchen’s mother was dying of brain cancer, she spent countless hours on the phone battling the insurance company. That’s why as Senate Democratic leader she fought so hard to negotiate the expansion of Medicaid, and because of that work, 680,000 people in Michigan now have access to health care. As governor, she’ll stand up to Donald Trump and Republicans when they try to take health care away from Michiganders and fight to protect people with preexisting conditions. Gretchen will also work to lower the cost of prescription drugs and repeal Michigan’s drug immunity law, which was sponsored by Bill Schuette to shield drug companies from liability when their drugs injure or kill,” spokesperson Zack Pohl told The Intercept. “That’s the kind of leadership we need to build a better Michigan for everyone.”

Michigan’s campaign finance disclosure laws do not require campaigns to disclose their 2018 fundraising sources until July 26, so the public won’t know the exact amount of money that BCBS executives raised for Whitmer until two weeks before the August 7 primary. Whitmer’s campaign declined The Intercept’s request that they provide the fundraising totals from BCBS prior to the disclosure date, saying that they will disclose as the law requires at the end of the month.

The issue of corporate money has been one that has broadly distinguished progressives from establishment politicians since Bernie Sanders’s primary effort in 2016, and it continues to generate excitement around progressive challengers who can claim to be “unbought and unbossed.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated longtime incumbent New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley after pledging to avoid corporate dollars altogether despite the fact that Crowley, an ally of Wall Street, outspent her 10 to 1.

Since her unexpected win, Ocasio-Cortez has worked to highlight other candidates running without corporate or lobbyist money — an increasingly important issue for voters. Earlier this month, she endorsed El-Sayed, saying that “he’s the only candidate in this race that doesn’t take any corporate money.” (Thanedar is self-funding with the millions of dollars he made from his chemical business.)

Correction: July 18, 2018, 1:54 p.m.
An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It has been updated.

Top photo: Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer speaks with reporters outside the state elections bureau in Lansing, Mich., on April 12, 2018.

Join The Conversation