Support for a single-payer, “Medicare-for-All” health care system in the United States continues to grow, according to recent polls. Private health insurance companies are clearly taking notice—and taking action with big money.

Since the beginning of this year, the political action committees of the five biggest for-profit health insurers—Aetna, Anthem, Humana, Cigna and UnitedHealth—have been doling out campaign donations to members of Congress at a fast pace, and they are giving to almost as many Democrats as Republicans.

As of last week, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the five PACs had donated $1,635,500 to the campaigns of members of the House. That compares with $1,173,600 they donated during the entire year of 2008, which was the last time insurers were concerned about growing support for single-payer health care. (Note that these totals do not include separate individual donations made by company executives.)

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the insurers’ cash is Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, the number four Democrat in the House who had made no secret of his ambition to become House Speaker. Only two other House Democrats have received more money from the insurers’ PACs so far this year than Crowley. [Crowley lost his democratic primary on June 26 to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political newcomer and democratic socialist who ran on a single-payer platform.]

Although Crowley has said he favors a single-payer system and signed on last year as one of 122 cosponsors of HR 676, the “Expanded and Improved Medicare-for-All Act,” he had clearly been viewed by insurance companies as an ally they could count on if he wins reelection and the bill continues to gain steam.

Crowley became the 111th co-sponsor of the bill on May 23, 2017, a month before former Sanders campaign staffer Alexandria Osasio-Cortez announced she was running against him for the Democratic nomination for New York’s 14th congressional district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens. Medicare-for-All has been one of Ocasio-Cortez’ top campaign issues, and she has won the backing of many progressive organizations.

 

Joe Crowley, member of the United States House of Representatives.

 

This is the first time in his Congressional career that Crowley faced a serious primary threat, and he raised and spent far more than Ocasio-Cortez yet suffered a stunning loss. Crowley has raised $3,354,370 to date, with less than 1% (.79% to be exact) of that total coming from individual contributions of $200 or less. Almost 70% of the $300,709 Ocasio-Cortez has raised has come from small individual donors. She says the average donation to her campaign has been $18.

As of late June, the big insurers’ PACs have contributed more than three-quarters of a million dollars to 122 of the 193 Democrats in the House. Only seven, however, have received money from all five, and Crowley is one of them. The others are Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Jim Himes of Connecticut, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, John Larson of Connecticut, and Richard Neal of Massachusetts.

The only two who have taken more money from the insurers’ PACs than Crowley are Bustos and Kind.

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The five insurers are united not only in their opposition to the single-payer legislation but also in their support of Medicare Advantage, the private alternative to the traditional Medicare program. A growing percentage of the for-profit insurers’ total revenues comes from Medicare Advantage. Their MA business has become increasingly profitable in recent years, and the insurers have invested heavily in sales and marketing activities to increase their Medicare Advantage enrollment. The spending has paid off: a third of the more than 57 million Medicare beneficiaries are now enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, up from 13% in 2005.

The companies have also invested heavily in lobbying efforts to protect the Medicare Advantage program from any proposed cuts. The Coalition for Medicare Choices claims to be a grassroots organization representing 2 million people enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, but it was created in 1999 by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association. AHIP and the Coalition share the same office address in Washington, D.C.

One of the coalition’s tactics is to encourage members of Congress to sign letters supporting the Medicare Advantage program. The group says 363 members of the House and Senate, including many Democrats, “took a stand for Medicare Advantage” this year.

Of the 122 House Democrats taking money from the insurers’ PACs, 74 are listed as having signed letters supporting Medicare Advantage. Crowley is one of them.

Another group of Democrats the insurers favor is the New Democrat Coalition, which is more conservative and pro-business then the 76-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. (Several House Democrats belong to both organizations). The insurers’ PACs have given campaign money to 55 of the 68 New Dems this year. But they’ve also given to almost half of the Progressive Caucus members.

The insurers apparently believe that many members of the Progressive Caucus and even the cosponsors of HR 676 are worthy of support and can be counted on to vote the way the industry wants if and when push comes to shove. The PACs have donated to 37 of the 76 members of the Progressive Caucus and 62 of the 122 Medicare-for-All co-sponsors.

Tarbell reached out to Reps. Bustos, Crowley and Kind for comment on being the top three beneficiaries among House Democrats of insurance industry campaign donations so far this year. Bustos and Kind did not respond. Crowley spokesperson Lauren French emailed the following statement:

“Joe Crowley fought against insurance companies to ensure that hundreds of thousands of Americans had access to health care through the Affordable Care Act and he’s one of the only members of Democratic leadership on the Medicare for All legislation, a progressive bill that will bring universal coverage to all families and individuals.”