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October 18, 2002

Money's role in health debates decried

From: Denver Post, CO
Oct. 18, 2002

Group: Public hurt by special interests By Michael Booth
Denver Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 2002 - Major political donors from tobacco companies to unions to nursing-home operators shoveled $1.7 million into Colorado health-care issues in the past six years, buying victories that hurt patients and consumers, a watchdog group charged Thursday.

The contributions to politicians who would agree with them helped special interests defeat proposals for covering children's hearing aids, lowering the price of drugs or easing consumer lawsuits against HMOs, according to The Democracy Project, a nonpartisan group tracking money in politics.

The health-care-related donations are a "significant portion" of all political contributions in Colorado, more than 5 percent, and "are a corrupting influence on our politics," said Jon Goldin-Dubois of Colorado Common Cause, a member of the tracking coalition.

The excess has "hurt consumers and has resulted in gridlock on many important debates affecting the health of Coloradans," said Bill Vandenberg of Colorado Progressive Action.

But one target of the coalition's ire, the National Federation of Independent Business, said its allegedly anti-consumer actions were taken precisely in defense of the average worker in Colorado.

The coalition spanked the NFIB for lobbying hard against a 2002 state House bill that would have required many insurance policies to cover hearing aids for children. NFIB and other business coalitions gave $338,107 in the past six years to Gov. Bill Owens, who vetoed the bill, and to many legislators who had voted against new coverage.

"These top-down, governmentally dictated, choice-limiting, unfunded, one-size-fits-all health-care mandates sound attractive and affordable individually, but when passed collectively, drive up the cost of health care and thus drive more Coloradans to the uninsured column," said Tim Jackson of the Colorado office of NFIB. "That's a much bigger problem for Colorado than not having hearing-aid coverage."

The coalition's report, "Unhealthy Habits," also dings tobacco companies RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris for contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars as they tried to win a cap on the bonds they had to put up while appealing successful smoker lawsuits. The bill made it out of committee and onto the Senate floor before public outcry against the tobacco companies forced legislators to table it.

The fact this "phenomenally bad idea" won any votes at all is "evidence enough that money is having a bad influence on politics," Goldin-Dubois said.

The bond cap would have protected tobacco companies' constitutional rights to appeal cases, responded RJ Reynolds spokesman Seth Moskowitz. Many states have already passed it. Tobacco companies have also lobbied on behalf of consumers against new cigarette taxes because smokers already pay too much, Moskowitz said.

The group said that leading contributors trying to influence health issues included the tobacco interests, which gave $261,581; the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association at $223,875; and Ralph and Patricia Nagel, owners of the Meridian chain of retirement homes, at $114,225. The report said the Nagels helped avoid tighter regulation of nursing facilities; Ralph Nagel did not return a phone call for comment.

Drug-company money has consistently killed state efforts to get low-priced prescriptions to poor consumers, the report added. Drug giants Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly have tossed more than $53,000 into state races since 1996.

Copyright 2002 The Denver Post