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Political Campaign Database Could Kick Start Deeper Scrutiny of Health Insurance Votes

Political Campaign Database Could Kick Start Deeper Scrutiny of Health Insurance Votes

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campaign contributions, politics, FollowTheMoney.org, Edwin Bender, reporting on health, health insurance, william heisel, health journalism

The same day that the Association of Health Care Journalists began its 2012 conference in Atlanta, a new report detailed huge amounts of campaign cash flowing from the health insurance industry to California legislators.

Barely a soul wrote about it.

The report was from the California-based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. The press release said:

A new analysis at followthemoney.org finds that health insurance companies gave $11.6 million in campaign cash to California politicians, including $7.4 million to candidates for the California legislature, between 2000 and 2010. The largest health insurance donor in California over the last decade was Wellpoint, the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross, which will increase health insurance premiums as much as 20% for nearly 600,000 California policyholders on May 1.

That just happened, by the way. The rate hikes went into effect last week. And reporters ignored that, too.

Blame campaign finance reporting fatigue among journalists. How many reports have you seen over the years that link campaign funding to specific votes, often with trivial dollar amounts involved. They often read like this: "Senator Ficklebottom received $1,000 from Industrial Industries Inc. Two years later, he voted to give a tax break to all companies that have names that start with a vowel."

What some reporters may have missed with this report, though, is that The National Institute on Money in State Politics (the folks behind followthemoney.org) included the total percentage of campaign dollars that came from the health insurance industry each year.

This is a key detail.

If you are a politician at a meet-and-greet, you may have 100 different people approach you. Each hands you a $1,000 dollar check, and each whispers into your ear. Are you likely to remember each name, let alone a specific legislative request?

Now, what if you are at that same event, and just 10 donors come up to you and give you a check for $10,000? You might flip that check over and jot down everything from their spouse's favorite band to the name of their pet turtle.

By this measure, the biggest recipient of health insurance industry campaign cash was Ted Gaines, a Republican assemblyman and then state senator from Rocklin. In 2008, 8.2% of his campaign funding came from the industry. In 2010, he received 9.4%. In all, he received $99,432 from the industry.

But did he turn around and vote for everything the industry asked? Or were his views and his votes already firmly in favor of the industry and, hence, the industry decided it wanted to support him?

Consumer Watchdog must have thought Gaines wasn't worth mentioning. It points to a different group of legislators as the true industry tools.

Health insurance companies have wielded their influence in Sacramento to kill legislation introduced every year for the last decade that would have required health insurers to get approval before increasing patients' insurance premiums. The largest recipients of health insurer money were lawmakers that voted against or blocked reform. They include: Lou Correa ($119,967), Gloria Negrete-McLeod ($135,610), Ron Calderon ($65,700) and Juan Vargas ($42,122).

And this is where the narrative falls apart. None of them received more than 3% of their campaign funding from industry. This doesn't mean that the money or the connections had no influence, but it does make it harder to prove.

Who are the legislators who received the most industry campaign funding? Dario Frommer ($150,388). Herb J. Wesson Jr. ($139,024). And, of course, Gaines ($99,432).

To truly piece together how health industry campaign cash dictates the legislative agenda would require more than just tallying up the dollars, although that's a good start.

It would require some probing into how our leaders in Washington, Sacramento and capitols across the country were persuaded to change their views as their pockets were being stuffed. It would be well worth a health writer's time to dive a little deeper into this data to find out.

Related Posts:

FollowTheMoney.org: Tips for Tracking Political Donations and Health Policy in Your State

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