Seventy-five percent of Democrats support “Medicare for all.” But the American health care industry appears to have pushed Democratic leaders away from backing House candidates who would support universal public health insurance. This backhanded approach occurs as key lobbies for the industry have united in opposition to single-payer with the creation of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future.  

A new Tarbell analysis shows the health care industry as a whole is giving generously to leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC describes itself as “charged with recruiting, assisting, funding, and electing Democrats” to the House. The industry includes pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, hospitals, nursing homes and professional health associations.

The industry investment appears to be paying off. Very few of the candidates endorsed by the DCCC in 2018 primary races support the idea of a national government health care program dubbed “Medicare for all” by champions of the proposal, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.).

This strategy is being used even though “Medicare for all” enjoys strong support among Democratic voters. There is notable support from several potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

The industry is not trying to stop “a blue wave” election” so much as it is trying to shape it. If the strategy succeeds, a Democrat elected in 2020 who supports single-payer may find an uncooperative Democratic House caucus. The fear of single-payer is serious enough that major players in the industry recently teamed up to form the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future. The group aims to stop “Medicare for all” from becoming “the default position among Democrats.” The DCCC seems equally determined. Tarbell found the DCCC’s endorsement strategy is closely aligned with groups like the New Democrat Coalition and Third Way, centrist groups that staunchly oppose “Medicare for all” and have clashed with progressive leaders like Sanders.  

“There is no question that there are powerful elements of the Democratic establishment who have been and are also beholden to the health care profiteers,” said James Haslam, director of the Vermont-based Rights and Democracy, and an organizer in the fight for single-payer in Vermont, which was initially approved by state lawmakers but ultimately abandoned by former Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014.  

“The challenge to win universal health care in this country is overcoming these stakeholders… which have spent enormous amount of energy and resources trying to undermine efforts for a universal health care system.”

Industry investments in DCCC leaders

The five members of Congress who comprise the DCCC’s top leadership positions have received nearly $3 million in contributions from the health care industry in their careers. More than a fourth of it $781,520 has been contributed in the current election cycle (2017-18) alone, according to Tarbell’s analysis of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and the DCCC’s finances.

The DCCC, Tarbell found, has adopted an agenda that is nearly identical to a health care industry-friendly bloc within the Democratic Party: the New Democrat Coalition (NDC) which has long been hostile toward a “Medicare for all” type system. Since the beginnings of the “New Democrats” in the 1980s, the group has pushed the Democratic party to increase its relationships with donors in the finance and health care industries.

In 2018, the DCCC has chosen to support 25 of the 27 candidates (93 percent) endorsed by NewDemPac (the Super Pac for the NDC) in the 2018 election.  

These DCCC endorsements come as there is record support for “Medicare for all” in both the House (H.R. 676)  and Senate (S. 1804). The Senate bill, introduced by Sanders last year, is supported by Senators Warren, Booker and Harris.

That embrace comes as the idea of expanding Medicare to cover all Americans is polling especially well.  According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 75 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of the general public support “Medicare for all.” Democrats, independents, Republicans and the public at large, the poll also found, support “Medicare for all” more than the Affordable Care Act.  

Yet the DCCC, as party insiders have conceded to the press, has opposed single-payer in 2018 primary elections.

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“There is an old guard of establishment Democrats who are resisting what we see happening now: a strong, unapologetic push for a national health insurance plan,” said Dr. Adam Gaffney, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and president-elect of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), a progressive doctor organization that backs a “Medicare for all” style program.

“This is a reckoning that is a long-time coming.  There are some Democrats who are just not willing to accept it.”

Meredith Kelly, communications director at the DCCC, did not respond to requests for comment from Tarbell.

DCCC Takes the Third Way on Health Care

In May, Third Way, the New Democrats’ most prominent think tank, released a strategy memo called “Winning on Health Care.” It warns that “Republicans are salivating to use single-payer as a cudgel,” in the elections because, Third Way contends, the proposal “is not as popular as advocates suggest.”

The DCCC’s campaign strategy mirrors the Third Way memo. Media reports have shown the great lengths the organization has gone to “neutralize the threat” of “Medicare for all.” This has included DCCC-commissioned memos urging members not to run on the policy, internal push polls with industry-connected pollsters, efforts to dissuade progressives from running against the DCCC’s pre-selected candidates and even opposition research against a progressive primary candidate.  

The DCCC does not share a single Congressional endorsement with Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-inspired group that has endorsed scores of other candidates this election cycle. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has endorsed 34 candidates, only 13 (38 percent) of whom were on the DCCC’s the Red to Blue list (which currently includes 67 candidates.)

NewDemPac also has a secondary endorsement of sorts called a “watch list.” Of the 16 candidates on this list, 12 are on the Red to Blue lista de facto endorsement by the DCCC. Combined, 37 of 43 candidates (86 percent) with support from the New Democrats are also supported by the DCCC.  

The DCCC’s near monolithic support for New Democrats in the primaries is not the only thing the two groups have in common. As of mid-July, the DCCC had given at least $2,500 each to 14 incumbents, all of whom are members of the New Democrat Coalition. Many of them are also honorary co-chairs for Third Way.

Deep Ties to Health Care Industry

Those who hold top leadership positions in the DCCC have received millions from the health care industry. Many of DCCC chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) top contributors by category are in the health care industry. Luján’s largest individual contributor in the 2018 and 2016 election cycles was Blue Cross Blue Shield. Among all industries to donate to him this cycle, pharmaceutical companies ranked second at $103,500. Health professionals (a category that includes professional associations like the American Medical Association) ranks third with $102,373.

Since 2010, when he was first elected, Luján has received $172,000 from health insurance companies, $280,000 from drug companies and $383,000 from health professionals. He received $269,500 in the 2018 cycle and a career total of $823,000.

Health care industry contributions to top House Democrats

 

In addition to the chairman, the DCCC also has 4 regional vice chairs, all of whom have taken substantial sums of money from health care special interests, Tarbell’s analysis found. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), a DCCC regional co-chair, received $50,000 this cycle and $480,000 in her career from the health care industry. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), another regional DCCC co-chair, received $92,000 this election cycle and $460,000 since he was elected in 2014. (Lieu is the only one of the top five DCCC leaders to sign on as a co-sponsor of H.R. 676, the House version of the “Medicare for all” bill.”

Among DCCC leaders, regional vice chair Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) is the largest recipient of health care industry cash. Kennedy, who gained national profile when he was  chosen to respond to Donald Trump’s State of the Union in January, has received $378,000 this cycle and more than $1 million in his career from the health sector. Drug companies alone have given him $132,000 this cycle, far more than the average amount drug companies have given Democrats ($26,265) or Republicans ($35.799) in the House.

Kennedy has also benefited financially from his own personal drug company investments. According to the Boston Globe, Kennedy has “earned stock value of up to $434,999” from his investments in Gilead Sciences Inc., the maker of the $1,000-a-pill Hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi.) Kennedy’s office did not respond to a request for a comment.

The fourth vice regional chair, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va,), who is serving his first term in Congress, has received $20,000 from the industry so far.

NewDemPac, the New Democrats political action committee, has been more active than usual over the past two years. It has already raised $2.7 million this cycle–-the most in its history. That money has flowed to the PAC from a long list of corporate supporters, including Humana, UnitedHealth, CVS Health and Pfizer. The DCCC is the largest individual recipient of money from NewDemPac.The PAC also has donated $580,000 to 105 different candidates for the House in the last cycle. The NDC’s chairman, Rep. Jim Hines (D-Ct.), has collected $600,000 from the industry in his career and $86,000 in the 2018 cycle. 

“Do these financial contributions matter? Yes, very much,” Gaffney said. “These industries would not spend this money for no reason.”

Publicly, some party leaders have argued that a national health care plan is a losing issue in the general election, but advocates are not convinced.

“I am skeptical that Democrats are really worried ‘Medicare for all’ is an election loser,” said Gaffney. “We have heard this argument before. It certainly didn’t pan out in 2016.  I think single-payer can be a winning issue and we are starting to see Ocasio-Cortez and others win on the issue. I expect this shift to continue and the old guard will continue to resist it.”

Campaign finance data in this article is based on the latest numbers available from the Center for Responsive Politics at the time of writing, unless otherwise stated.