In Health-Care Debate, Lobbyists' Money Flows

Influence of health industry may hurt bill's integrity and fairness, with some national lawmakers accepting hefty campaign funds

WHEN lawmakers pick up the debate on health-care reform this week, lobbyists from the health-care industry will try to be at their sides.

Reform of the nation's health-care system, which makes up one-seventh of the US economy, has become the most heavily lobbied initiative in recent United States history, says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, in Washington.

The lobbying has influenced the debate thus far, Mr. Lewis says. From January 1993 to March 1994, $23 million was given by health-care special interests to congressmen in the form of political action committee (PAC) contributions and individual donations, he adds.

Lawmakers who served on committees dealing with health-care legislation, and those who introduced health-reform bills, have received the most money from the health-care industry. In 1993, 134 lawmakers held health-care assets, most of which were in the drug industry, the Center reports.

Some lawmakers have voiced concern about the role of money in the health-care debate. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota recently urged his colleagues to ``put a stop to all this money pouring in here.

``When $4 million is contributed from the health-care industry in March alone, and over the last 18 months over $1 million a month has poured in, how can we hope that people we represent will believe that the final reform bill we pass will not ... have been affected by these huge special interest contributions?'' Senator Wellstone asked.

Senators are trapped in an ``awful'' system, Wellstone said, where they are supposed to raise $13,000 a week in order to be a viable candidate come election time. Campaign-finance reform bills are stalled in Congress as the House and Senate struggle to work out differences.

``I have never promised anyone a thing for a campaign contribution,'' says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois. ``But if there is someone who has raised $5,000 for your campaign and they want to come in and have an appointment, ... the reality is that person is going to get an appointment.''

Joseph White, a Brookings Institution associate says the health-care PAC money given to lawmakers ``is irrelevant,'' even given that many lawmakers are up for reelection in November.

``The $5,000 to $10,000 for your campaign is nowhere as important as your local small businesses threatening to turn against you because of your position on health-care reform,'' Mr. White says.

According to Lewis, more than 97 lobbying firms have been hired within the last 18 months by health-care special interests to put the pressure on lawmakers. In addition, White says, the health-care reform debate has spawned an unprecedented, negative advertising blitz that stung President Clinton's health-care reform efforts.

The Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), which represents small and medium-sized insurers, has spent $14 million so far on its ``Harry and Louise'' television spots to turn the public away from Mr. Clinton's health-care plan.

``They do prove you can fight 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,'' HIAA spokesman Richard Coorsh says. The group started the ads - which feature a yuppie couple worrying about aspects of the Clinton plan - in September 1993 after feeling ``frozen out'' of the health-care deliberations of the White House.

``Now we have a seat at the table,'' Mr. Coorsh says. According to Lewis, the ads were responsible for a 20-point drop in public opinion concerning the president's plan. The group also almost succeeded in using the ads as a threat to keep certain provisions out of at least one health- care bill - the one under the direction of former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois.

The HIAA and Mr. Rostenkowski cut a deal in which the group would not run its ads while the committee was deliberating the bill in exchange for the removal of certain insurance-related provisions, Coorsh says. The deal fell apart when Rostenkowski was charged with financial mismanagement.

Rep. Sam Gibbons (D) of Florida, the new Ways and Means chairman, did not want to deal, and Harry and Louise were back on the airwaves.

The ads are expected to run through Aug. 17, Coorsh says.

Eighty-five lawmakers took 181 trips sponsored by the health-care industry to San Juan, P.R., Paris, and Montigo Bay, Jamaica, as well as places in the US, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Among those who have taken the most trips are Sen. Dave Durenburger (R) of Minnesota, (11 trips); Rep. Fred Grandy (R) of Iowa, (8 trips); and Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, (6 trips).

On the Senate floor, Wellstone drew a connection between the difficulty of convincing US lawmakers that employers should be required to pay a portion of their workers' insurance premiums, and the amount of money that businesses have donated to Congress.

He cited a report by Common Cause showing that between 1987 to 1993, business PACs donated $72 million, while labor PACs gave $16 million.

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