Money flows into health care lobbying

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Americans may be growing sick of the debate over health care reform.

Lobbyists, though, are getting well.

In the first six months of 2009, financial disclosures show, health care groups spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to hire lobbyists who can influence Washington's deliberations on health care and insurance reform.

That total doesn't include lobbying by health insurance groups or the amount spent in July, August and September — the months when work on health care reform got serious.

And it's on top of the $485 million that health groups spent on lobbying last year.

"What many of these groups are trying to do is spend one dollar now to save 10 dollars later," said Dave Levinthal of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled the spending numbers. "If you're a drug company, for example, you want to make sure that you're at the table."

Health care groups aren't the only ones spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the health care reform campaign.

Political parties, industry and trade associations, labor unions, grassroots groups and others are paying for radio and TV commercials, news conferences, newspaper ads, rallies, billboards, e-mails and Web sites, all pushing various positions on the complicated legislation.

The spending is so widespread that figuring out the final total may never be possible, Levinthal said, but $1 billion isn't out of the question.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver — watching the health care overhaul in Washington — said lobbyists were so thick it was hard to walk across the street from his office to the Capitol to cast a vote.

"I've never seen anything like this in 30 years in politics," the Missouri Democrat said.

Groups with a big stake in the health care reform debate argue they don't have any choice but to spend money to influence lawmakers.

"There are those who want to demonize the insurance industry," said Tom Bowser of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, which recently spent $20,000 to buy five full-page ads in the Kansas City Star outlining the company's views on reform. "We think it's (essential) to help people understand the issues and our position on the issues."

A broad-based insurance industry trade group called AHIP — America's Health Insurance Plans — will spend an estimated $1 million this month to air TV ads that suggest the federal Medicare Advantage program will be cut dramatically if current health overhaul plans become law.

Democrats, labor unions and interest groups are responding with multimillion-dollar campaigns of their own. Organizing for America — an offshoot of the Democratic National Committee — sponsored rallies across the country last week that featured a live webcast from the president.