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Lobbying Groups, Companies Raise the Stakes in Health Care Debate

July 30, 2009
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Related Topics: Medical Benefits Law, Benefit Design and Communication, Ethics, Latest News
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Recently released federal records revealed several prominent employers and their lobbying groups sharply increased their budgets in the second quarter of 2009, and though percentages are not disclosed, it is believed that the spike in spending targets the national health care reform agenda.

The Business Roundtable, a coalition of the largest U.S. employers, spent $1.56 million on lobbying in the first quarter; in the second quarter, that figure quadrupled to more than $6.35 million, according to records filed to comply with federal disclosure laws.

The American Benefits Council increased its spending to $254,608 in the second quarter from $192,662 in the first.

Businesses also upped their lobbying budgets.

Safeway CEO Steve Burd, a prominent advocate of health reform, poured additional money into health care lobbying, increasing the supermarket chain’s in-house lobbying budget to $630,000 in the second quarter from $350,000 in the first quarter of 2009, according to federal records.

Federal law requires organizations to disclose on a quarterly basis how much and who they pay to lobby on their behalf. Lobbyists do not itemize the amount of money spent on each issue, but rather list the work they do and how much they spend each quarter.

Companies and lobby groups identified in the recent disclosures specified that they worked on issues and legislation related to health care or health care reform, though they didn’t disclose how much time has been spent on those matters.

In addition to health care, employer groups have cited other primary issues.

A spokesman for the American Benefits Council said the group spent about half its time on health care. The other half was spent on pension-related issues.

A spokesman for the Business Roundtable said the difference in spending had more to do with accounting practices. Still, health care was one of their top priorities last quarter, said spokesman Kirk Monroe.

“Tax trade and health care are our biggest issues,” he said. “We are certainly spending more time, focus and energy on health care, absolutely.”

The spending is not surprising given the importance of health care reform and the fact that since 2006 the health care industry has spent more than any other industry on lobbying, said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a government and lobbyist watchdog. Last year, the health care industry spent $480.5 million on lobbying.

That figure does not include the amount spent by the employers that have turned to their own lobbyists to work on health care issues.

Wal-Mart has been vocal in the health care debate.

Since the beginning of 2009, when health reform began in earnest, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer has vastly increased its spending on internal lobbyists to $2.58 million in the second quarter from $1.6 million in the first.

While Wal-Mart spent $6.6 million in election-year lobbying last year—a 50 percent increase from 2007—the company is on track to spend more than $8 million on lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Even Chrysler and General Motors, despite recently emerging from bankruptcy, have maintained their six-figure in-house lobby shops to weigh in on health care reform.

In general, employers have been united in their opposition to major bulwarks of current legislation.

They have opposed a public plan option as well as changes to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the federal law that allows employers to design health plans for all employees regardless of local statutes. And with the exception of Wal-Mart, employers have opposed a law that would require all employers above a certain size to provide health benefits or pay a fine.

With health care reform not expected to be voted on until fall, it may be too soon for employers to evaluate the return on their lobbying investment. But if a reform package emerges that is favorable to employers, they are likely to consider it money well spent.

—Jeremy Smerd

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