Health care industry contributes heavily to Blue Dogs

WASHINGTON — During the first half of the year, as the Obama administration and moderate and liberal factions within the Democratic Party wrangled about the timing, shape and cost of health-care reform efforts, the party’s fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition pulled in $1.1 million in campaign contributions — more than half of that from the pharmaceutical, health-care provider and insurance industries — and successfully delayed voting on reform proposals until the fall.

The amount outstrips contributions to other congressional political action committees during the same period, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog organization.

“The business community realizes that (the Blue Dogs) are the linchpin and will become much more so as time goes on,” former Mississippi congressman turned lobbyist Mike Parker told the organization’s researchers.

During their tenure in Congress, Georgia Blue Dog Reps. John Barrow, Sanford Bishop, Jim Marshall and David Scott have received a combined total of more than $2.1 million from health-care and insurance industries.

On average, Blue Dog Democrats net $62,650 more from the health sector than other Democrats, while hospitals and nursing homes also favor them, giving $5,680 and $5,550 more, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.

The contributions came at a time when health-care, insurance and pharmaceutical companies were mounting a campaign against a government-run public health-insurance option, fearing cost controls and an impact on business. The Blue Dogs’ windfall also came at a time when the 52-member coalition flexed its muscle with both the White House and the House Democratic leadership as an increasingly influential bloc in the health-care reform debate.

At the same time, many Blue Dogs also were rubbing shoulders with health-care and insurance industry executives and their lobbyists at fundraising breakfasts and cocktail receptions that cost more than $1,000 a plate, according to public information compiled by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which advocates greater government transparency. Since 2008, more than half of the Blue Dogs have either attended health-care industry fundraising receptions or similar functions co-sponsored by lobbyists representing the health-care and insurance industries.

In June, as Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who heads the coalition’s task force on health care, publicly expressed the Blue Dogs’ misgivings about the Democratic leadership’s efforts, the former pharmacy owner was feted at a series health-care industry receptions. Ross has received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the insurance and health-care industries over his five-term career.

That same month, the American Medical Association, which lobbies for health-care providers and is one of the top contributors to Blue Dogs, came out against a public option.

Scott, who supports a public option and whose Smyrna district office was defaced with a swastika after a heated town hall exchange this month, has received roughly $700,000 from the insurance and health-care industries.

“The health-care industry is so diverse that they can’t even agree,” said Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Andel. “He’s only influenced by his constituency, and that includes health-care providers.”

In June, Bishop, D-Albany, attended a $500-a-plate breakfast fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club co-hosted by lobbyists Nicole Venable and Tammy Boyd, according to invitations compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

Venable currently represents pharmaceutical giant Novartis and Abbot Laboratories and Boyd represents DaVita Inc., a kidney care company, and in 2008 she represented Johnson & Johnson.

Bishop and Marshall, D-Macon, have each received more than $500,000 from the health-care and insurance industries over the course of their careers.

“Money doesn’t buy or influence my vote or judgment. Never has. Never will,” Marshall said.

In July, Barrow, D-Savannah, who has received nearly $400,000 from health-care-related industries over his three terms in Congress, attended a $1,500-a-plate fundraising luncheon at Bistro Bis in Washington co-hosted by lobbyists Geoff Werth and Matt Brow.

Both lobbyists represent US Oncology, a cancer care services company, and last year Werth represented the American College of Surgeons.

House Republicans, however, tend to collect more than Democrats — including Blue Dogs — from insurers, health professionals and the broader health sector, the Center for Responsive Politics found.

Many of the Blue Dogs hail from districts that are conservative-leaning and have sizable numbers of Republican voters.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government transparency, Blue Dogs often take positions that are favorable to the health-care industry.

During the 2008 cycle, individual members of the Blue Dog Coalition raised a combined $6.24 million from the health sector.

The average contribution to a Blue Dog Democrat in the 2008 election cycle was slightly higher — $122,370 — than the average contribution to a non-coalition Democratic lawmaker — $116,748, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

During the spring, the Blue Dog Coalition, which got its name when former Texas Democratic Rep. Pete Geren said moderates had been “choked blue” by “extreme” Democrats from the left, met with the Obama administration and House leadership to discuss concerns about the tone and direction of health-care reform efforts.

The group, many of whom hail from Southern and Midwestern states, pushed “rural health equity” with higher reimbursement rates for physicians and hospitals in areas of the country that struggle to recruit and retain health-care providers.

The Blue Dogs were also very vocal in their subsequent complaints that House leadership wasn’t including the group in the legislation drafting process.

This year, 45 Blue Dogs, including Bishop, sent a terse letter to the Democratic chairmen of the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees, stating that the group felt minimized in the process, which is “especially concerning in light of the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues.”

The coalition also sent the Democratic House leadership a letter stressing they would favor a public option only if industry reforms and greater competition don’t lead to lower costs.