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Ruling ‘nirvana’ for health corp.‘s?

By David Gulliver and Mary Jo Melone
1/22/2010 © Health News Florida

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling, which allows companies to pour unlimited money into advertising campaigns for political issues, is "nirvana," according to a spokesman for big business in Florida. But consumer groups say corporate interests will drown out all other voices in the fight for health reform.

The decision "diminishes the vote of ordinary people, many of whom are struggling to pay their health care bills,” said Brad Ashwell of Florida Public Interest Research Group. “It tips the scales of power against people struggling in a broken health care system.”

The 5-4 decision essentially frees companies -- and, probably, labor unions, although they have little clout in Florida -- to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements for or against a political candidate. 

“If some huge company wants to spend $10 million to say, vote against Senator So-and-So, it can do that,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. “Corporations will be able to spend unlimited amounts directly from their own treasuries.”

Barney Bishop III, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida said “it’s about time” that business had this free-speech right.

”This is nirvana,” Bishop said. “Now corporations can legally play in the political arena at the federal level.” 

He thinks the decision will have less impact on health care companies than other industries because they have already spent so heavily on health care reform. But then, they have more to spend than most industries, with health care accounting for nearly 17 percent of the gross domestic product.

FPIRG's Ashwell said the legislative health-reform package pending in Congress is already "pretty moderate," and it's not likely to get more consumer-friendly now that business interests "can go straight to their treasuries.” 

Warning that Thursday's ruling would lead to "corpocracy," Florida Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando said citizens who care about increasing access to health care should pay particular attention.
"Gross interference by insurance companies in the political process has impeded progress toward health care reform, and this decision makes such interference even easier," said Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando.

Actually many health care corporations have supported Pres. Obama's push for change in the system, offering concessions on payments to help fund expansion of coverage. But they've received concessions as well: The White House agreed not to negotiate on drug prices to get support from pharmaceutical companies, and he and gave health insurers what they wanted most -- a requirement that all Americans buy a health policy, with taxpayer subsidies for those who can't afford it. It's unclear whether the industry players that signed on to health reform would remain at the table if those guarantees go away. 

The individual mandate to buy insurance has come under increasing attack from Republicans in Congress and at the state level. Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum has threatened to sue if it's enacted, saying it's unconstitutional.

Even before the Supreme Court ruling, chances of helping Florida’s 3.8 million uninsured were looking increasingly sketchy, with a special-election loss that cost Democrats a crucial seat in the U.S. Senate this week. The only quick route to passage was for the House to accept the version of the legislative package that barely passed in the Senate on Christmas Eve, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday she doesn't have the votes to pull it off.

Until now, companies could not spend their own money directly on political advertising. They had to create political action committees, or a shadowy type of nonprofit known as a 527 organization. Then those groups could raise money from donors to pay for advertisements. For PACs, those donations are limited under federal law to $5000 per person per year.

In an ironic twist, PACs and 527s often create “issue ads,” ostensibly to inform the public about things like healthcare reform, but often used them as thinly veiled attacks on candidates.

Now, they could produce almost unlimited advertising on an issue simply by linking it to a candidate, Levinthal said.

Florida already has been awash in ads for and against the pending health legislation in Congress, from supporters such as Health Care for America Now and detractors such as Conservatives for Patients Rights. The conservative group is headed by Florida health care entrepreneur Rick Scott, a former HCA executive.

Scott has spent at least $5 million of his own money to fight the legislation, according to Brian Burgess, spokesman for the activist group. “The number keeps going up because the debate has gone on so long,” Burgess said.

The court decision means that if he wanted to, Scott could have one of his business interests underwrite the campaign. Scott could not be reached on Friday.

The money involved to date is staggering: Pharmaceutical and health insurance groups already have spent more than $2.2 billion on lobbying and $69 million on contributions to lawmakers in 2008 and 2009 alone, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The American Medical Association and American Hospital Association have added $70 million in lobbying and almost $5 million in contributions, the Center found.

Florida's lawmakers have benefited from the heath care sector, to the tune of $11.6 million over their careers, most of it directly from physicians and medical trade associations, the Center also reported.

Under the Supreme Court ruling, corporations still cannot give directly to candidates, and must disclose their role in any advertising. But it also means special interests can influence politicians without spending a dime.

“You can imagine a situation where a member of Congress is going to vote in a certain way that is distasteful to a certain corporation,” Levinthal said.

“That company could just talk to that member and say, ‘Next time you’re up for re-election, we’re going to spend millions of dollars to defeat you.’” 

--Carol Gentry, Editor, contributed to this report. Here are e-mail contacts for Carol GentryDavid Gulliverand Mary Jo Melone.