Commentary

Health orgs donating to lawmakers who oppose public health measures can’t have it both ways

March 8, 2021 12:20 am

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient. Courtesy of University Hospitals

You can’t have it both ways. 

You can’t be a science-driven, public health advocate and support clear threats to best safety practices during a monumental public health crisis. You can’t be for saving lives during a viral pandemic with prudent safeguards and for politicians out to weaken or scrap them altogether. You can’t vigorously oppose bad public health policy, at a critical juncture in containing a mutating pathogen, and reward those pushing it and other harmful measures with big campaign checks. 

You can’t have it both ways. 

But that’s what prominent health organizations in Ohio tried to do by giving money to Statehouse politicians who aggressively risk public health with reckless policymaking. The same trade associations — representing thousands of healthcare professionals, hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies in the state — who fought ill-conceived, unsafe legislation as the pandemic raged, also helped elect the very legislators responsible for bills sabotaging public health efforts.

An Ohio Capital Journal investigation looked at campaign contributions made by 20 health-related groups in Ohio and discovered the glaring dichotomy between mission and money. While many of these organizations joined forces in a commendable public campaign to encourage mask-wearing and urge people to take other proven pandemic precautions in 2020, the OCJ found these groups were simultaneously bankrolling the campaigns of politicians aggressively sandbagging those messages. 

With generous donations that overwhelmingly favored Republican candidates, the Ohio Hospital Association, the Ohio Nurses Association, the Ohio Osteopathic Association, the Ohio Pharmacists Association and others, effectively put lawmakers in power who refused to wear masks, scoffed at social distancing, decried restrictions and shutdowns even as infections and deaths soared, and who are more determined than ever to hamstring the ability of the governor and top health officials to act in a public health emergency. 

Senate Bill 22 is the latest Republican attempt to essentially put lawmakers in charge of decision-making during life-and-death catastrophes. Don’t know about you, but the last people I want managing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic are mask-less, mindless politicians jostling to raise their career profiles on a committee.

Sen. Rob McColley, who co-sponsored the bill, and previous ones to wrest power from Gov. DeWine and the state health department, raked in thousands of dollars from health associations as his base-pandering moves threatened to jeopardize the health and safety of Ohioans. The northwest Ohio Republican has plenty of company among colleagues pocketing donations while undercutting public health protections.   

Makes you wonder why these health organizations even go through the motions of showing up in Columbus to urge lawmakers not to impede the health department’s authority to act quickly and decisively to save lives, not to second-guess medical professionals and public health experts doing emergency triage, not to subvert crucial plans to vaccinate as many Ohioans as possible.

Politicians happily cash their campaign checks and draft their bills repudiating all of the above. None of this is a surprise to the health associations financially backing those politicians. Often the donations from health groups arrive well after politicians do their worst. A prime example is the Republican named to the top health post in the House who slammed vaccines as he ran for reelection last year and collected thousands of dollars from health organizations heralding the coming Covid-19 vaccines on their websites.

Their donations — more than $12,000 in total over the last four months of 2020 — undoubtedly allowed Rep. Scott Lipps to reclaim his influential platform as chairman of the House Health Committee where he can continue to dissuade untold numbers of Ohioans from getting a vaccine that could keep them and others from getting sick or dying. Which raises the question: Why are health associations pouring 80% of their contributions to lawmakers bent on jettisoning public health progress at a turning point in the pandemic? 

With over half a million dead Americans in less than a year from a lethal virus morphing into perhaps more lethal variants, why on Earth would you put your money on politicians openly committed to derailing hope for recovery and relief based on science? Most of the Ohio health groups, whose campaign finance records were reviewed by OCJ, did not respond. The couple that did suggested that their donations to lawmakers, (e.g. Lipp, McColley) who put politics ahead of public health, are part of a broader business investment, a transactional enterprise, if you will. And there’s the rub. 

These political contributions from health associations advance their special interests, if not the public interest. The trade-off is access to power regardless of the disastrous public health policy that power brings. The sobering takeaway is this: State health organizations representing hospitals, pharmacists, nurses, emergency room doctors, osteopaths and others in the health industry are not working for us. Mission statements about promoting public health are not the same as advocating on the public’s behalf. 

Not when money-buying influence is more important than defeating politicians who are a clear and present danger to Ohio’s pandemic response. You can’t be about saving lives and destroying them with campaign contributions. 

Can’t have it both ways. 

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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.

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