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Cantor's Friends

The minority whip is a leading recipient of contributions from the health care industry. Will his role as a leading critic of its reform come with a steep price?

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When it comes to keeping big-spending liberals and big government in check, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Henrico, often cites his steadfast allegiance to ordinary taxpayers. The rising Republican star and minority whip is a particularly staunch defender of the status quo in today's system of managed care, although he acknowledges it's too expensive.

On the national political talk-show circuit where he's a frequent guest, he insists that the government should stay out of health care as much as possible. In his frequent newspaper columns and speeches at fundraisers, he says that the government-led “public option” of providing health insurance is a horrible idea.

Health care companies need Cantor badly to make their case. They stand to lose billions if the system that's served them so well is changed significantly by reforms pushed by President Barack Obama.

And they're paying well for the service. Cantor is one of the leading recipients of health industry contributions in Congress. He led the list in the House of Representatives for funding from both lobbyists and health care company employees and their political action committees, receiving a total of $157,500 since 2007.

The data was compiled by two Washington-based watchdog groups, the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics. While there's nothing illegal about accepting such contributions, “he's way up there on the list,” says Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the center, which collects and analyzes campaign contribution data. Total donations from the health care industry to Cantor are higher if totaled up for the decade or so he's been in office.

Yet back home in Richmond, Cantor's close ties to big health rarely come up. At a Sept. 21 health care forum held by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for example, Cantor debated U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” C. Scott, D-Newport News. Scott insisted that a public option for health insurance is needed to keep the system competitive, while Cantor argued against health care reform, calling it intrusive and unnecessary.

At no time did any of the 225 people at the session, or any reporters, ask about Cantor's health care industry donations. Indeed, doing so might be considered bad form by Richmond's business and political elite who are proud of their favorite son.

His staff says there's nothing wrong with accepting health care funding. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, says “when citizens invest in Mr. Cantor's campaign, they are investing in his agenda and not the other way around.”

Others say the practice raises questions. Whether Cantor's directly affected by industry money isn't clear, but “it certainly doesn't look great,” says Naomi Sullivan, spokeswoman for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Campaign records show that Cantor has accepted money from companies, lobbying groups and professional associations such as the Federation of American Hospitals, Aetna, Amerigroup Corp., Humana, Wellpoint and United Health Group. All of them have a huge stake in preserving the health care system — it's been enormously profitable for them. According to a study by investment bank Goldman Sachs, insurers Humana and Wellpoint have the highest percentage of their earnings at risk should health care reform press forward.

This year Cantor has also received contributions from as many as 21 physicians groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, which gave $5,000, and the American Society of Anesthesiologists, which contributed $4,000. Other donors include drug companies such as AstraZeneca, a $31 billion drug manufacturer, which makes purple pill Nexium to fight acid reflux disease and cholesterol-reducer Crestor.

The money flowing to Congress is critically important as legislators prepare to merge parts of five different health insurance reform proposals into one sweeping proposal that could come to a vote in the Senate at the end of this month.

Lobbyists are swarming Capitol Hill trying to push the five proposals their way. Raising the pressure, health care industry advocates have spent more than $380 million in recent months to block the public option and stall other parts of Obama's proposed reforms. Some industry money is going for television ads that try to scare the public into believing that its premiums will soar or their loved one's futures will be decided by government-led “death panels” if Obama's heath-care reform becomes law. 

Democrats are raking in health industry money as well. Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who heads the Senate Finance Committee, has received $1.5 million from industry groups. His committee has proposed the leading reform bill.

Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia, has received $131,100 from health care lobbyists and companies and ranks No. 7 in such contributions in the Senate. Although he took in almost as much as Cantor from health care lobbyists, he hasn't been a key player on health reform efforts other than backing the idea of health insurance cooperatives. “We haven't figured out why Warner is getting so much, especially since he is new and incumbents generally get the funding,” says Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall says the $131,100 should be put in context against the $14 million Warner raised for his 2008 campaign. He offers one reason why Warner is attracting donors from the health industry: He's knowledgeable about the topic.

The tentacles of health industry funding also are wrapping around consulting companies that supply much of the analysis and information that politicians cite in public debates. In a July 12 column by Cantor that was published in the Times-Dispatch, for example, the congressman wrote that “two out of three Americans who get their health care through their employer will lose it” under a plan proposed by House Democrats. For his source, Cantor cited “the nonpartisan” consulting firm Lewin Group.

Stories in the national news later revealed that the Lewin Group, in fact, is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, a Minnesota managed care provider that gave Cantor $28,000 through its political action committee. Another twist, according to the Washington Post, is that the Lewin Group is part of another UnitedHealth entity, Ingenix, which has been accused by the New York Attorney General's Office and the American Medical Association of helping insurers shift medical expenses to consumers by distributing faulty data.

Dayspring, who works in Cantor's minority whip office, says that plenty of legislators, including liberal Democrats, cite the Lewin Group's data.

To some political experts, Cantor's ties to managed care firms are no surprise. “He's a classic business Republican,” says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

Another factor is that when Cantor assumed the role of House minority whip last year, his profile and influence immediately skyrocketed and he started picking up much more in campaign contributions. Part of his job is to raise money for other GOP candidates and their causes and by all accounts, he's done a bang-up job.

“He's one of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress,” says Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which publishes the newsletter and blog, “Party Time.” “We've tracked 60 events hosted by Cantor or ones where he was the chief draw.”

One issue highlights so-called Coffee with Cantor fundraising events in which lobbyists or others pay $2,500 to sip lattes and chat with the congressman at a two-story Starbucks at 237 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, just a couple of blocks from Cantor's office in the Cannon House Office Building. The $2,500 payment includes four brief, morning sessions with Cantor. “You asked for it and it's back!” reads a recent flyer advertising the sessions.

“It's pay to play access — for a price he'll meet with you. Not everyone does it,” says Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Health care, however, is not Cantor's largest source of funding. Leading the list is real estate, which could be explained by Cantor's background and expertise in real estate law. The second largest is financial securities. Richmond-based Genworth Financial, a major Cantor backer, is in his district and his wife, Diana, is a finance executive, and sits on the board of directors at Media General, which owns the Times Dispatch. Insurance is the third-largest supporter of the congressman. Locally, large corporate contributors include law firm McGuireWoods and electric utility Dominion Resources.

Bankrolling Washington has been the status quo for more than two centuries. The ethical issue is whether companies and interest groups are paying a politician to change his or her mind or if the official would have voted that way regardless of money. “The issue is whether a member of Congress will immediately call back a contributor on an issue if he is a big contributor,” says Sullivan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

One person who may not have that burden when it comes to health is Democrat Bobby Scott, who pushed Obama's health care proposal at the Times-Dispatch forum. He gets only a few thousand dollars each year from big health — pin money compared to Cantor. The curious thing for the Richmond audience, however, is that nothing about it ever came up.

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