Health-Care Corporations Flooded Political Campaigns With Cash in 2017

Frank Bass | April 10, 2019

The nation’s largest health-care corporations gave at least $61 million directly to political campaigns, nonprofits, ballot initiatives, and trade associations during 2017, according to a MapLight analysis of newly released data.

The data, compiled by the Center for Political Accountability, show the health-care giants gave $37 million alone in donations to political trade association heavyweights that included the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA); U.S. Chamber of Commerce; America’s Health Insurance Plans; and the Healthcare Leadership Council.

The data underscore the political obstacles that advocates of health-care reform face. Virtually all of the 104 trade associations that received corporate funds from the health-care giants in 2017 oppose a larger role for the federal government in providing health insurance, even though a comfortable majority of Americans support a single-payer health-care system. Health-care reform advocates will likely continue to be outspent in the wake of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that essentially gave the green light to corporations to flood political campaigns with unlimited amounts of money.

On top of the trade association contributions, health-care giants spent at least $11 million to influence ballot initiatives, and $6.6 million went to political nonprofit organizations. About $4.9 million was given directly to political candidates, and the remaining amount, almost $2.2 million, was given to “dark money” social welfare organizations.

The Center for Political Accountability, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., has pressured major corporations to adopt transparent policies for their political contributions. Not all corporations disclose their political contributions. The nonprofit was able to obtain political contribution disclosures for 295 of the nation’s largest 500 corporations in 2017, primarily from 2018 voluntary corporate reports, as well as state and federal campaign records.


Campaign Donations

While members of trade associations frequently disavow policies pursued by the organizations, the center’s data highlight areas that were of particular interest to the health-care corporations during 2017. Merck & Co., the Kenilworth, N.J.-based drug manufacturer, gave almost $13.1 million to political campaigns and trade associations during 2017. Almost 90 percent of its contributions were given directly to PhRMA, but Merck also made $381,050 in donations to 426 political candidates.

Merck spent most on campaigns in its home state of New Jersey ($64,100) and Florida ($59,000) while also contributing significant amounts to political races in California ($42,000) and New York ($38,000). The California Legislature passed a 2017 measure to require drug manufacturers to justify price hikes; New York approved legislation capping Medicaid prescription drug spending.

Corporate political spending in two of the nation’s largest states differed, however. The Merck contributions in California went directly to legislative candidates. Tom Daly, an Orange County Democrat who leads the Assembly’s insurance panel, received $3,500, the most of any California politician. In New York, Merck gave $16,000 to Democratic legislative campaign committees and $13,000 to GOP committees. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, received $5,000.

Other large corporate health-care donors included Amgen Inc. ($6.6 million); Biogen Inc. ($6.1 million); Anthem Inc. ($5.5 million); and Pfizer ($5.4 million).

Local Issues

Amgen, Biogen, and Pfizer were also large corporate contributors to opponents of Ohio’s Issue 2, the most expensive ballot initiative in the state’s history. Along with Johnson & Johnson, the companies gave more than $10.7 million to defeat the proposal, which would have required state agencies to pay the same rate or less as the Veterans Administration for prescription drugs. The four companies accounted for almost one-fifth of the $58 million spent to defeat the initiative, which barely drew 20 percent of the vote.

A pro-Issue 2 organization asked the Ohio Elections Commission to investigate the PhRMA Ohio Initiative Fund for failing to register as a political action committee, calling it “a dark money laundering scheme to keep making obscene profits at the expense of sick and suffering patients.” The complaint was dismissed by the regulators.

Biogen also gave $240,000 in 2017 to an organization described as the “PhRMA California Ballot Initiative.” California voters defeated Proposition 61 in 2016, a measure that was similar to the Ohio initiative.

Other measures influenced by corporate cash included $100,000 from Cerner Corp., a Kansas City-based electronic health records company that boosted the successful effort to persuade voters to approve a $1.64 billion terminal at the Kansas City International Airport, and $30,000 contributions by Cigna and UnitedHealth Group to battle an unsuccessful attempt to create a universal health-care system in California.

Three health-care corporations accounted for almost half of all contributions given to 527 groups, or nonprofit organizations that are allowed to engage in political activity but required to disclose the identities of their donors. Anthem Inc., the Indianapolis-based health insurer, gave almost $1.6 million of its $5.5 million in political donations to the nonprofits. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) was the largest recipient, taking in $600,000 from the insurer. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) received $425,000.

Anthem also gave $40,500 to four Colorado nonprofits. Almost 80 percent of Colorado voters cast ballots in 2016 opposing an unsuccessful initiative that would have created a universal health-care system for the state. It gave another $10,000 each to the California Vote Project, a Democratic voter registration initiative; California Trailblazers, an effort to groom Republican candidates for state positions; and Californians for High Quality and Affordable Health Care, a nonprofit sponsored by California health insurers.

Pfizer, the New York City-based drug manufacturer, gave $1.1 million to 527 organizations, including $550,000 to the Democratic Governors Association and $250,000 to the GOP counterpart. Like Anthem, it contributed to Colorado nonprofits, donating $15,000 to three organizations. The Minnetonka, Minn.-based UnitedHealth Group gave $593,000 to the nonprofits, including $300,00 to the RGA and $200,000 to the DGA.

This story was produced by MapLight and published in partnership with Fast Company.