Private hospital megachains have maneuvered in recent months to defeat the expansion of low-cost health insurance coverage, while demanding unprecedented bailouts over the coronavirus crisis.
The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future Action is a private hospital, insurance, and drug industry-led campaign group to defeat state-based public option plans and diminish support for single-payer health insurance. The group spent nearly $3 million through last month on advocacy and television advertisements as the Covid-19 crisis took shape.
The group, launched two years ago with a focus on battling Medicare for All during the Democratic presidential primary, has since shifted to blocking state-based reform efforts. PAHCF is funded by the largest voices in for-profit health care, from drug companies to medical device makers. The coalition is led by a lobbyist who represents the largest for-profit hospital chains in the country.
The spending spree went toward attacks on a Colorado plan that would have provided a “public option” for those without employer-based coverage. The option would be offered as a low-cost insurance alternative that could be used at any major health care provider for quality care. The program was estimated to save an average of 20 percent on premiums, below the costs of equivalent private insurance plans available on health insurance exchanges.
Drafts of the proposal lay out a number of financing options, including an effort to constrain the billing practices at hospitals, a cost-saving method used for programs such as Medicare. But such cost reductions for consumers and taxpayers at the expense of private hospitals sparked a furious lobbying campaign by industry, as The Intercept has previously covered.
The outbreak of the coronavirus did little to temper the industry-backed lobbying spree against the Colorado plan.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency over the spread of Covid-19 on March 10. PAHCF continued spending on lobbying and public advocacy against the public option plan through at least March 17. The disclosures for April have not yet been released.
New disclosures filed with the Colorado Secretary of State show that PAHCF spent the first half of March on a variety of political spending in the state to weaken support for the low-cost, government-run alternative health plan. The disclosure shows $2.7 million paid to a company called Plus Media Communications for broadcast, cable, and digital ads.
The coalition also retained several local lobbyists to keep up the pressure on Colorado lawmakers and mobilize grassroots opposition. The Kenney Group, a lobby firm that employs former aides to leading Colorado politicians, was paid at least $24,000 by PAHCF during this period. True West Strategies, a company recently registered by Tyler Mounsey, a former aide to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, was also paid by the campaign.
Social media accounts controlled by PAHCF during this period continued promoting political attacks on the plan. “H.B. 20-1349 would put health care decisions in the hands of politicians, instead of doctors and nurses. We can’t afford this legislation — it’s time to #StopTheOption,” claimed the group in one Facebook posting.
The lobbying blitz, coupled with the uncertainty that the crisis has imposed over the policy process, has stalled the ambitious Colorado plan at a time when many Coloradans are losing their jobs and hence their health care. Legislative action on the bill is on hold as Colorado lawmakers take up other emergency measures relating to the coronavirus.
The sweeping unemployment caused by the crisis has pushed even more Americans into the individual market, a dynamic that could be solved in part by a low-cost public plan. Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts, a proponent of the plan, told Colorado Public News that the “public health crisis makes it abundantly clear that more people need access to health treatment.” But the fate of the legislative proposal remains in limbo.
PAHCF, which did not respond to a request for comment, appeared to change its messaging in April. The group now touts the role of the private sector in solving the Covid-19 crisis in advertisements that have run in recent weeks.
The interests behind PAHCF, during the same period, have spent big money wrangling a series of taxpayer-funded bailouts from Congress.
The chairman of PAHCF, Chip Kahn, the chief lobbyist for the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents investor-owned hospitals, disclosed that his team worked to secure emergency funding for hospitals as part of the nearly $3 trillion in recent federal spending.
The CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion bailout legislation, authorized $100 billion to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which provides payments to hospitals and providers to offset the lost revenue from reduced elective procedures and other lost revenue during the crisis.
Last week, Congress passed another round of emergency spending. Much of the package was designed to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program funding for small businesses, along with an additional $75 billion for hospitals.
The coronavirus epidemic has served as a bonanza for Forbes Tate, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that oversees PAHCF. The firm has registered over a dozen new clients seeking influence over the emergency legislation since the crisis began. Gilead Sciences, a pharmaceutical firm that has touted one of its antiviral drugs as a potential treatment for Covid-19, registered with Forbes Tate to shape federal policy around the crisis.
The need for federal bailout money contrasts sharply with years of spending by investor-owned hospitals on executive compensation, dividends, and share repurchases. Kindred and HCA Healthcare, two of the largest private hospital chains, which operate several hospitals in Colorado, have collectively spent over $3 billion in stock buybacks in recent years.
Tenet Healthcare, an investor-owned hospital that directly funds PAHCF, increased the pay package of CEO Ronald Rittenmeyer by $10 million last year, bringing his cash and stock awards to nearly $25 million. HCA Healthcare paid former chief executive R. Milton Johnson $109 million in 2018 as he retired from the company. Both companies, now reportedly receiving a gusher of government aid, have furloughed thousands of nurses and doctors.
The pause in health reform politics, with Colorado’s public option in doubt and the defeat of the more progressive Democratic candidates in the presidential primary, has given PAHCF the opportunity to refashion itself into a public relations arm for the industry.
“HCA Healthcare is #WorkingTogether by providing life-saving ventilators in some of America’s cities hardest hit by #COVID19,” declares one recent PAHCF advertisement running on Facebook. Other PAHCF ads celebrate the contributions of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the lobby arm of the drug industry.