When the powerful leaders of California’s legislative health committees return to Sacramento, they will arrive with a clear mandate from voters who ranked health care as their No. 1 issue.
But voters’ voices weren’t the only ones that resonated: Health care interest groups financed a large chunk of the two lawmakers’ campaigns.
A California Healthline analysis of campaign data from California’s secretary of state office found that the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly health committees together raked in more than three-quarters of a million dollars from drug companies, health insurance plans, hospitals, doctors and other health-related donors from Jan. 1, 2017, through Thursday. California Healthline identified contributions from health-related donors and categorized them manually.
These big-money players have a vested interest in the decisions that Assemblyman Jim Wood and Sen. Richard Pan, both Democrats, will make as they preside over some of the most pressing health care issues in the new year — from legislation that would expand health coverage to unauthorized immigrants and other uninsured Californians, to efforts to slash drug prices.
“These committees affect the wealth and livelihood of every physician in the state, every health insurance company in the state, every drug company in the state and every hospital in the state,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
And when your committee holds power over such industries, Court said, “those industries are going to pay tribute.”
California voters in November’s midterm elections ranked health care as their top issue, according to multiple polls, and the candidates who vowed to protect the Affordable Care Act won big — giving Democrats a sweep of statewide offices, including victories in traditionally Republican strongholds. Democrats now have a supermajority of 75 percent in the Assembly and 72.5 percent in the Senate.
The leaders of the health committees say they have a clear mandate from voters to address health care access and affordability. But with more than a third of their campaign cash coming from the health care industry, it seems the industry is counting on having willing ears to listen to its concerns.
“The contributor thinks they have to do it to get access and talk to them,” said Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “That may not be true, but the contributors worry it might be true.”
Pan, a Sacramento pediatrician and chair of the Senate Health Committee, took in at least $432,000 from health care interests during the 2017-18 election cycle. That amounts to 40 percent of the money in both his personal campaign account and a ballot measure committee he formed called Californians Building a Healthy Future.
Wood, a dentist and the Assembly Health Committee chairman, accepted at least $365,000 from the health care sector and advocates, nearly 38 percent of the total money in his personal campaign account and his Committee to Improve the Quality of Life in California.
Health care unions and associations representing doctors, dentists, nurses and other health care workers were the biggest contributors: $102,600 to Pan and $136,350 to Wood. Individual doctors and other health care workers gave Pan $51,070 and Wood $2,510.
The drug industry also gave generously with $97,800 to Pan and $42,000 to Wood. HMOs and insurance plans gave $81,350 to Pan and $76,520 to Wood, and hospitals or health care facilities gave $52,818 to Pan and $45,800 to Wood, according to the latest filings.
Large contributions to prominent lawmakers are the norm in Sacramento, campaign finance experts say. Committee heads have the power to help shape policy, shepherd key measures through the legislative process or even block bills.
Pan and Wood said the contributions don’t influence their votes.
“I don’t suppose to know the reasons why someone would contribute to my campaign,” Wood said in a statement. “But I do know that the decisions I make in the legislative process are my own and are based on what I believe is best for the people I represent and all Californians.”
Pan described fundraising as a necessity to finance campaigns. His Senate office, he said, has an open-door policy and he meets with both donors and non-donors, critics and supporters of legislation.
“You seek support, in the absence of public financing, from the people you know best,” Pan said. “That’s probably why I got more from the health care sector.”
None of the health care organizations or unions contacted for this article would discuss specifics about their contributions. Representatives for the California Medical Association, the California Dental Association, the California Hospital Association and the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West said in general statements that they give to candidates interested in health care.
“We seek partners of all political stripes that are focused on pragmatic, workable solutions to some of California’s most pressing challenges, from universal access to the rising costs of health care,” said Laura Braden Quigley, spokeswoman for the California Medical Association, which represents more than 43,000 doctors, in a written statement.
The association gave $13,800 to Wood and $12,100 to Pan.
The California Medical Association lobbied against the ultimately unsuccessful single-payer health care bill, which would have created a government-run health care program. So did the California Dental Association, the California Hospital Association and the California Association of Health Plans. Those four groups together gave $44,300 to Pan and $70,200 to Wood.
Meanwhile, the California Nurses Association union, which sponsored the single-payer bill, gave $3,000 to Pan and $1,300 to Wood. Pan abstained from voting on the measure when the Senate passed it in 2017, while Wood was roundly criticized for siding with the Assembly speaker’s decision to shelve the bill.
While contributions have the potential to sway lawmakers, Court said, public opinion is usually a greater factor. For example, both Pan and Wood were major beneficiaries of drug company money, but both voted last year for legislation that requires the industry to report and explain drug price increases, which the industry is battling in court.
“Health care is the top issue for Democrats in America,” Court said. “If these two chairmen don’t take the right votes to prioritize the public’s interests, they are vulnerable the next election.”
Harriet Blair Rowan contributed to this report.