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Health reform and the Supreme Court

Sarasota Health News‘ David Gulliver and Health News Florida’s Mary Jo Melone considered exactly how last Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign contributions by corporations would impact the health care lobby and the health reform debate. Their most interesting angle? That health care companies have already spent such gigantic sums of money on lobbying (more than $2.2 billion in 2008 and 2009) that the ruling won’t have the same impact on health as it will on other industries. In other words, the medical industry has already had the volume on the lobbying amp cranked to 10 for some time now, and it’s just not possible to ratchet it up any higher.

Gulliver and Melone on exactly what has changed in theory:

Until now, companies could not spend their own money directly on political advertising. They had to create political action committees, or a shadowy type of nonprofit known as a 527 organization. Then those groups could raise money from donors to pay for advertisements. For PACs, those donations are limited under federal law to $5000 per person per year.

In practice, the impact is less clear. Even under the previous system, those with money found ways to use it with impunity. It’ll be a more straightforward process now but, especially in health care, may not lead to huge changes in the money being spent. According to one school of thought, the biggest change will be in the use of explicit anti-candidate advertising threats as a metaphorical club during negotiations.

NOTE: It’s important to remember that, in a companion decision, the court upheld the transparency requirements that accompany these political donations.  If you’re interested in tracking the changes in donations post-decision, head over to OpenSecrets.org, where they have a post explaining exactly how to use their tools to do so.

As for immediate impact, the reporters quote several experts who seem to think that unrestrained spending won’t transform the health care reform debate, partly because it’s already been so thoroughly transformed by other factors.

(Brad Ashwell of Florida Public Interest Research Group) said the legislative health-reform package pending in Congress is already “pretty moderate,” and it’s not likely to get more consumer-friendly now that business interests “can go straight to their treasuries.”

Even before the Supreme Court ruling, chances of helping Florida’s 3.8 million uninsured were looking increasingly sketchy, with a special-election loss that cost Democrats a crucial seat in the U.S. Senate this week. The only quick route to passage was for the House to accept the version of the legislative package that barely passed in the Senate on Christmas Eve, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday she doesn’t have the votes to pull it off.

AHCJ member founds local health news site

AHCJ member Dave Gulliver, formerly of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, launched the nonprofit Sarasota Health News late Wednesday night. In less than 24 hours, he posted five stories, including a feature, a computer-assisted piece and plenty of breaking news.

After being laid off in February, Gulliver said he looked around and saw that many important stories, including the watchdog and health business reports in which he had specialized, were going unreported.

“There are great stories that need to be told, that need to be written, and I thought I can still do those,” Gulliver said. “I don’t need a printing plant to do the job.”


Dave Gulliver

He may no longer depend upon the printing press, but Gulliver now relies on something else: community support.

“For now, investigative reporting and news reporting – at least on the Internet – doesn’t have the commercial viability, but there seems to be a lot of philanthropic support out there so I decided to go [the nonprofit] route,” Gulliver said. “I’m fortunate that I live in Sarasota, Fla. which is a pretty progressive community. There are a lot of people out there willing to support a venture like this.”

Sarasota Health News hews to a more traditional news format rather than a more informal, blog-like approach because that’s where Gulliver’s experience lies.

“I think you have to do something to stand out from what’s already out there,” Gulliver said. “I had to go with what my strength was and what would stand out a little bit. It’s what I was doing before, it was really well received, and there’s still an audience for it.”

Gulliver said his content would ultimately depend on what that audience was looking for, but that he would focus on general health care with a heavy focus on watchdog, investigative and explanatory work.

“People really don’t know what’s going on under the hood of health care and I think they really want to know that,” Gulliver said.