Health Care Lobbying Is Hazardous to Your Health

August 17, 1994|By DAVID EWING DUNCAN

Two reports issued in the past few days are vitally important as we try to make sense of the health-care debate.

The first comes from the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based think tank founded four years ago by Charles Lewis, a former television producer. Mr. Lewis used his considerable investigative skills to produce "Well-Healed; Inside Lobbying for Health Care Reform," 195 pages of text, charts and appendices guaranteed to make you ill about what is happening in Washington to health care.

Influence-peddling has been around since the first Homo Erectus grunted, ''Let's make a deal.'' But we must stand in awe of the sheer size and audacity of today's health care lobbies and the success they have had in eliminating, diluting and adding to key elements of reform.

Gone are any meaningful cost controls on insurance rates, killed by the insurance lobby. The House and Senate leadership bills have had dozens of goodies added to standard care packages, including requirements that Medicare pay for name-brand drugs instead of cheaper generics, a costly victory for the drug lobby.

According to Mr. Lewis and his researchers, hundreds of groups have spent at least $100 million on lobbying the health care issue, including $15 million spent on the infamous Harry and Louise ads and $25 million contributed to campaign funds of members of Congress since January 1993.

Combing through Federal Election Commission records and other public documents, the Lewis group named dozens of members accepting huge bundles of cash and dozens of free trips to vacation spot for ''educational'' meetings -- all legal.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), lead author of a key Senate bill, accepted $306,720 in PAC contributions since January 1993.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), author of a moderate bill known as ''Clinton Lite,'' which became a favorite of big business earlier this year, amassed $461,800 in individual contributions.

Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), creator of what was for a long time the major Republican alternative to the Clinton bill in the Senate, snagged $248,525.

One problem with the study, however, is these amounts include contributions from ''organizations with health care interests,'' including such groups as the AFL-CIO and business lobbies, which have a wider agenda, as do most members of Congress.

Yet disclosure laws are so weak it is impossible to know what gross sums reported to the FEC and other agencies are actually spent for, or what contributors talk to Congress members about.

The report also suggests that recent laws to curtail the old insider-to-lobbyist shuffle are a travesty, listing dozens of pols and staffers turned influence-peddlers, including 12 former members of Congress.

Former Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) earned $105,000 in months as a consultant to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Former presidential candidate and Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) stumped for a group composed of 55 chief executives of major health care companies.

One Hill powerhouse, nine-term Rep. Bill Gradison (R-Ohio), stunned Washington by resigning last year shortly after re-election, enticed by a high salary to become president of the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), sponsors of the Harry and Louise ads.

But dry numbers, stacks of cash, and lists of names hardly begin to tell the more sordid stories during this furious season of insider deals:

The $250 plate luncheons for out-of-state congressmen thrown by insurance companies, the 55 trips sponsored by the American Medical Association.

In perhaps the most brazen insider horse-trade of all, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, cut a deal with his old colleague Bill Gradison, just before Mr. Rostenkowski was indicted in the House post office scandal and had to give up his chairmanship.

According to the Lewis report, ''Rosty'' agreed to remove or water down several key provisions opposed by Mr. Gradison's group in exchange for HIAA pulling the Harry and Louise ads, which were viewed on the Hill as devastatingly effective against the Clinton plan.

The deal fell through when ''Rosty'' was replaced by Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), leading Mr. Gradison to make an astonishing admission of his power as a lobbyist.

He told the Lewis researchers that ''When Chairman Gibbons, who was not a part of the discussions with Rostenkowski, became acting chairman, he dropped some things that we had worked out with Rostenkowski, and we're now back on the air again.''

The other report released in recent days is a series of studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, on the role of television and other advertising in the health debate.

Reporting that 86 health care groups have spent at least $50 million on nearly 200 ads, the center charts the fairness and accuracy of this uprecedented barrage.

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