The U.S. Covid-19 Pandemic Response Hurt by a Weakened Health-care System

Disheartened treating patients struggling to pay for their medicine and insurance premiums, hit by surprise payments they can’t afford, or encouraged to undergo unneeded procedures, health-care professionals see first-hand the consequences of unlimited political spending by industry giants. The harmful influence of political spending on policies over decades, they believe, has weakened our health-care system and thereby worsened the impact on America of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How did three health-care professionals from different parts of the country come together to submit testimony to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment to limit Big Money in politics? Last Fall they met at a national conference of non-partisan civic volunteers concerned about the dramatic rise in outside spending in our elections and on lobbying our legislators. They compared notes on their careers — an Ohio clinical psychologist, a New Jersey OB-GYN doctor, and a Michigan registered nurse — and realized how similar their experiences were regarding the harmful effects of big pharmaceutical and insurance companies on the quality of care and well-being of their patients. Today, faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, these three ‘citizen lobbyists’ are taking action to limit political spending so that the American public can have the quality health-care system they deserve

Ellen Greene Bush, of Port Clinton, Ohio, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master’s degree in nursing, has worked as a psychologist in a group practice for most of her career. Having grown up living on the shores of Lake Erie, Ellen explained how devastated she was in 2014 when Toledo’s drinking water was declared to be contaminated. Uncontrolled phosphate run-off from concentrated animal feeding operations led to dangerous algae levels in the lake. She found that ordinary citizens have little influence in these matters and was spurred to become engaged with others who shared her concern.

Last October, Ellen connected with fellow health-care workers Marie HenselderKimmel and Robbi Duda at the National Citizens Leadership Conference of American Promise (a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to limiting money in politics). Marie, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey obstetrician-gynecologist, practiced for 24 years before facing some health issues of her own. She became frustrated seeing her patients struggling to pay for their medications and insurance premiums, often preventing them from accessing the care they needed. At the same time, she saw pharmaceutical and insurance companies lobby against policy measures that would address the affordability of health-care for ordinary Americans. Marie, like Ellen, said that seeing how large corporations got their way, overriding the interests of the public, was what concerned her the most

It just so happened that Robbi Duda sat down next to Ellen at one of the conference sessions and they struck up a conversation. An Ann Arbor health and wellness educator for seniors, Robbi is a University of Michigan trained, board certified geriatric nurse. Her experience with patients urged to undertake unneeded procedures helped the three women to better frame the impact of corporate lobbying on the broader health-care industry.

When I met with Ellen, Marie and Robbi recently, they explained how their deep concerns about the influence of political spending had inspired them to become “co-conspirators” in helping American Promise include a special focus on the health-care industry. Through a ‘lobby day’ on Capitol Hill after the conference and once back home, they carried a message to their legislators.

As ‘citizen lobbyists’ armed only with their professional experience, they noted that pharmaceutical and insurance company lobbyists outnumber elected officials in Congress 5 to 1. They learned that outside spending in elections had grown enormously in the decade since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision ($1.4 billion in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics). And Super PACs and ‘Dark Money” funded by groups with names like ‘Center to Protect Patient Rights’ were actually undisclosed donors revealed to be corporate and special interest groups, not ‘patients’ at all.

Over several months after the conference, Ellen, Marie and Robbi hammered out a Statement of Principles to affirm the support of healthcare providers for removing the toxic influence of political spending on the nation’s healthcare policy. They are proud of the fact that their statement was included as testimony from American Promise to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the first hearing for a bipartisan constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics in February 2020.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Marie highlighted how another group (Doctor Patient Unity) is lobbying Congress to block its attempts to control “surprise billing” (by balancing the interests of patients, doctors, and insurers regarding uncovered out-of-network charges). This draft legislation would put an end to patients being hit with thousands of dollars in expenses not covered by their insurance even when they are treated in an ‘in-network’ hospital. Doctor Patient Unity, composed of private equity-owned medical staffing companies, has spent $57 million on an ad campaign opposing this legislation, while simultaneously cutting pay and benefits for ER doctors and other medical workers, according to ProPublica.

Ellen noted that health-care workers are on the front lines today and don’t have time to lobby Congress on the most pressing issues limiting the care for people that is so desperately needed. “It’s an overwhelming situation for them, often working long hours without adequate protection, doing whatever they can to help their patients…it’s just such a striking contrast to me.” All three agreed that the attention focused on health-care now was laying open the harmful practices of lobbyists and special interests that put so many Americans at risk. Unfortunately, they fear that the pandemic will also offer opportunities for monied interests to extract even more advantage from the system.

By reducing the influence of political money in the health-care system, these citizen lobbyists underscored how this would help place greater emphasis on the prevention of illness and palliative (comfort) care for our elderly and dying. The current focus on end-of-life sickness care would shift in favor of public health issues such as clean water, or wellness initiatives such as affordable insulin. Limiting pharmaceutical and insurance corporate interests would help spur cost-cutting and help prioritize better delivery of care.

Ellen described her chapter of American Promise back home in Ohio as consisting not just of meetings and socializing. They were action oriented. As a non-partisan group, her chapter and others across the country such as those led by Marie and Robbi are intent on writing letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and, most importantly, talking to their elected representatives. She said it was important to develop personal relationships to encourage their legislators to support measures limiting the influence of Big Money in politics.

When I asked how they were received by their legislators, Marie commented that they were respectful and generous with their time. But she frequently heard complaints about how the flood of money in elections, especially from out-of-state special interests, was placing tremendous pressure on them to spend most of their time fund-raising. Citing polls showing that 75% of Americans oppose the excessive influence of money in politics, many legislators agreed. However, some felt constrained by party leadership.

Ellen, Marie, and Robbi strongly believe that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is much worse than it needed to be, especially for a country that spends more on health-care than any other, and yet has the lowest life expectancy among rich nations. Through their civic engagement and that of thousands of other concerned citizens around the country, they remain optimistic about the prospects for a constitutional amendment to place reasonable limits on Big Money in politics. It will take two-thirds of the House and Senate to accomplish that, plus ratification by a similar percent of the states. Thus far, 220 members of the House Representatives have co-sponsored a bill (HJR-2) to accomplish that, and 47 Senators have co-sponsored a companion bill (SJR-5). Twenty states have approved non-binding resolutions thus far, over half the 38 states required to ratify an amendment. American Promise’s goal is for the amendment to be passed by 2026. The momentum generated thus far is encouraging, they all agreed.

Listen to a “Citizen Reformers” podcast with Ellen, Marie, and Robbi here.

Founder and CEO of Democracy4Change.org.