Nearly 3,900 Ohioans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the most since mid-January, when vaccines were a scarce commodity allocated only to the neediest recipients.
Through the pandemic, meanwhile, the Ohio Hospital Association’s PAC has contributed $13,000 to Republican lawmakers who co-sponsored legislation to ban vaccine mandates from hospitals, colleges, and employers in Ohio. Critics of the legislation, including OHA, have described it as an attempt to pander to anti-vaccination fervor and undermine public confidence in safe and effective vaccines.
The hospitals are hardly alone in positioning themselves against the legislation, while funding the campaigns of Republicans who have spent months building political pressure and hosting marathon hearings to pass it.
Republicans in the Ohio House passed House Bill 218 on party lines last month at the height of a new wave of COVID-19 in Ohio — a surge driven by the hyper-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus and a state that remains the 10th least vaccinated in the country.
“Our political contributions support candidates who are involved in a wide-range of hospital and health care issues,” said John Palmer, a spokesman for the OHA. “Our decision process evaluates each candidate individually considering a variety of factors including the totality of the candidate’s work.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, as a new (and possibly worse) coronavirus variant emerges, and the pandemic nears its second anniversary.
The OHA is a member of the self-identified “Ohio Vaccine Coalition” — a list of 100 businesses, health care associations, business interest groups, hospital networks and more — that formed in May in opposition to a broader version of the anti-vaccine legislation than what passed last month.
Another coalition member, the Ohio State Medical Association, represents Ohio’s doctors and identifies itself as the first and largest physician-led organization in Ohio. OSMA’s PAC contributed $7,600 to campaigns of lawmakers who sponsored HB 218 between January 2020 and June 2021 (the most recent filing deadline). The PAC of a different physician interest group, the Ohio Osteopathic Association, gave another $2,050 spread across six sponsors in the same time frame.
“It’s unreasonable to expect policy makers to agree with any person or group 100% of the time,” said OOA President, Dr. Henry L. Wehrum. “Nonetheless, the OOA maintains its strong opposition to bills that restrict vaccines, such as HB 218.”
The Ohio State Association of Nurse Anesthetists’ (not a member of the vaccine coalition) PAC contributed $40,000 to HB 218’s sponsors between January 2020 and June 2021.
Nursing homes housed the most at-risk residents and more than 8,000 deaths during the pandemic. The Ohio Health Care Association, the most powerful industry lobby group in Ohio and a member of the vaccine coalition, gave $25,000 to the bill sponsors over the same 18-month span. Pete Van Runkle, OHCA’s executive director, said PAC decisions are derived from a number of factors, “not on the lawmaker’s position in a single issue.”
Another industry lobby group, the Academy of Senior Health Sciences Inc., gave $13,000 to Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, an HB 218 co-sponsor.
Supporters of the legislation have dismissed characterization of the bill as “anti-vaccine” and insist it’s about “medical freedom” and bodily autonomy. However, demagogic rhetoric on vaccination has dogged the bill and its predecessors for months. The bill language itself adopts the phrase “genetic vaccine technology.” The House Health committee this summer fielded testimony from a witness who claimed vaccines “magnetize” recipients and “interface” with cell phone towers. Rep. Tom Young, R-Washington Twp., suggested in August that vaccines kill children (they do not). Bill sponsor Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, in an interview said he won’t put any vaccine “poison” in his body.
The OSMA, OSANA, and Academy did not respond to inquiries about HB 218 or contributions to its sponsors.
Non-health care groups follow suit
Some members of the Ohio Vaccine Coalition with less direct ties to the health care center have funded HB 218’s sponsors as well.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce joined the coalition and its CEO, former GOP congressman Steve Stivers, has spoken out against HB 218 repeatedly. He compared the bill’s passage to “legislative terrorism” to two media outlets last month, in reference to rumors of vote-trading between the vaccine mandate bill and decennial redistricting.
The Chamber gave $5,650 to HB 218’s sponsors. Another coalition member, the Ohio Realtors Association, gave more than $35,000.
Neither association responded to inquiries.
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