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Healthcare groups spent big on lawmakers

Health care organizations have given generously to Ohio lawmakers as the General Assembly weighs whether to accept billions of federal dollars to pay for expanded Medicaid eligibility in Ohio.

In total, organizations representing health care professionals, hospitals, nursing homes, medical service providers and pharmaceutical companies donated about $459,000 to state legislators during the first seven months of 2013, according to a newspaper analysis of state campaign finance records. In 2011, health care groups donated almost $773,000 to state legislators.

Healthcare groups are among a broad coalition of advocates pushing lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility as first proposed in January by Gov. John Kasich (who himself has received $83,000 from health care organizations so far this year). The diverse coalition also includes religious, labor and business groups, among others, and has threatened to take the issue to the 2014 ballot if legislators fail to act.

If lawmakers were to expand Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, the federal government would send $13 billion during the next seven years to pay for health care for an estimated additional 275,000 Ohioans.

Republican lawmakers, citing concerns over the program’s cost and tying it to the expanding federal debt, took Kasich’s Medicaid expansion plan out of the state budget earlier this year, but continued to debate the issue until the legislative summer recess began in June.

Besides expansion, the debate has also involved generally trying to reform Medicaid, a $19.8 billion state and federally-funded program that provides health care to 2.3 million low-income and disabled Ohioans, to try to reduce its costs and improve its effectiveness.

Large donors make contributions during non-election years to try to gain access to legislators as they make policy decisions, said Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst with Common Cause Ohio who has long studied money and politics in Ohio.

“The contributions are not about elections. They’re about governing. And those contributions are about trying to bend a lawmaker’s ear,” Turcer said.

Top health care donors so far in 2013 are the Ohio Dental Association ($73,700); the Ohio Optometry Association ($64,000); medical services company Cardinal Health ($42,500); Wellpoint ($36,100), a managed care company; the Ohio Provider Resource Association ($34,100), which represents care providers for people with developmental disabilities; and the Ohio State Medical Association ($33,600).

Officials with the dentists and optometrists groups did not return messages seeking comment, although Ohio Optometric Association Executive Director Rick Cornett has testified in favor of Medicaid expansion as long as it covered vision care. Cassi Baker, a lobbyist for Cardinal Health, said her company consistently donates to legislators in leadership positions and in communities where the company operates. Medicaid expansion would not directly impact Cardinal Health, she said.

The top three House of Representatives recipients of health care donations were Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, ($53,600), Rep. Anne Gonzales, R-Westerville, ($26,450) and Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Lucas County, ($24,250). Gonzales is the chair of a house subcommittee that has handled Medicaid reform debate. Sears is a member of House leadership and an outspoken advocate for Medicaid expansion.

The top three Senate recipients of health care donations are Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, ($29,250), Sen. Chris Widener, R- Springfield ($17,125) and Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton ($16,000). All three are members of senate leadership, and Oelslager is also the chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

While Turcer said campaign contributions can provide donors with access to politicians, spokespeople for state legislators downplayed their impact.

Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for Batchelder and Ohio House Republicans, said: “Campaign contributions have no impact on legislative decisions made by this caucus.”

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