State Rep. Tina Pickett, whose position in Harrisburg gives her enormous say-so over what happens to proposed insurance laws, has more cash in her political campaign account than any of her 201 colleagues in the House — thanks in large part to the insurance industry.
A review by The Morning Call of hundreds of campaign finance reports showed Pickett’s $268,546.49 cash balance in late May was inflated by a years-long influx of insurance industry cash that began when Pickett became chairwoman of the House Insurance Committee in 2013.
“The representative’s numbers are staggering,” said Douglas Heller, an insurance industry expert with the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that carries out research and advocacy.
The newspaper’s review showed the balance in Pickett’s campaign account on May 18, the end date of the state reporting period just before the primary election, was tops among all House incumbents. In the subsequent period — the most recent for which records are publicly available — Pickett’s total increased slightly but still led all 202 House members.
At least $170,350 in contributions — or more than 54% of the overall total — made to Pickett’s campaign between her Sept. 25, 2013 assumption of the Insurance Committee chair and the May reporting date came from insurance industry political action committees or people tied to the industry.
Experts says such big contributions are made to curry favor.
One insurance group that gave more than $12,000 has even called Pickett the “lead architect and champion” for the industry.
“There is no coincidence that the chairperson suddenly is lavished with incredible amounts of campaign cash. Because, with this position, she has the power to move forward consumer protections, or stop them, and move forward industry interests or stop them, and that is a lot of leverage,” Heller said.
There is a connection between the sort of big insurance contributions that go to Pickett and lawmakers’ failure — despite years of effort — to stop much-detested “surprise” health care bills that hit consumers with unanticipated charges, according to Nijmie Dzurinko.
Dzurinko is co-founder of “Put People First! PA,” a group that wants to create a state-level public health care advocate position free of influence and political cash.
She described the connection as “between the massive power these companies hold over our state, and our Legislature.” According to Dzurinko, there are hundreds of other examples of how the economic power of wealthy industries translates into political power at the expense of average citizens.
“There has been a lot of bipartisan capitulation to the insurance industry,” she said.
Pickett, however, said the money does not influence her work on the Insurance Committee. The Bradford County Republican called the idea of a connection between her campaign contributions and the lack of a law banning surprise bills “completely untrue.”
She was prime sponsor of a proposed law meant to address the surprise charges, but it drew criticism from physicians groups as giving too much power to the insurance industry.
In a January op-ed piece, Dr. Nirag C. Jhala, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Pathologists, criticized the legislation, saying it would do more harm than good.
“If that bill passes, private health insurers will be able to control medical charges, which has significant potential to weaken the health care delivery system,” Jhala wrote.
Pickett said work on the surprise billing issue is still underway, and rejected any notion that she would favor insurers over businesses or consumers.
She said observers would be pretty hard put to find an example of that in her record, and she is “far heavier” on voting in favor of businesses than for insurance companies.
Told of the 54% figure, Pickett said that as a veteran Republican committee chairperson, there is an expectation that she raise funds to help the Republican caucus and other Republican lawmakers with their campaigns.
Her campaign committee records show it made a $25,000 donation to the House Republican campaign committee last year.
“I don’t mind that,” she said of contributing to other campaigns. Politically, she added, “You have an obligation to help others.”
The newspaper reviewed all contributions of $250-plus that were made to “Friends of Tina Pickett,” her campaign finance committee, and listed in state-filed reports dating back to 2007.
No contributions from political action committees for Allstate, Liberty Mutual and other large insurance companies appeared until after she became chairwoman of the committee.
After that — among 30-plus insurance-related entities that have donated to Pickett — political action committees for Nationwide, Erie Insurance, Aetna and Cigna contributed $12,000, $12,000, $12,000 and $11,000, respectively.
The largest industry-related donor was the Pennsylvania Insurance PAC, tied to the Philadelphia-based Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which gave $25,050.
The second-largest total, $12,300, came from the political action committee for the Pennsylvania Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. It was PAMIC that called Pickett a “champion” of the industry in a flyer for a fundraiser early this year.
“As chairwoman, she has the responsibility to determine what legislation gets voted on,” said PAMIC President Ron Gallagher, whose organization represents 120 active insurers in Pennsylvania. “She plays a very critical role in this highly regulated industry.”
Election campaigns are not publicly funded, Gallagher noted, and private contributions from a variety of givers are the fuel that runs the process.
The donation total to Pickett, he said, was enhanced by the fact she has led the committee for so long.
“We are exercising the same right as any individuals,” he said. “We are a bipartisan PAC. We give to both parties.”
Pickett said PAMIC may have gone overboard when it used the word “champion.”
Many members of the trade association are rural, like Pickett’s home area, and she said that might foster the portrayal of kinship. And she said the word “architect” used by PAMIC implies that she builds or designs legislation, and she said she does not do that.
Her duty as chairwoman of the committee, she said, is to bring fully vetted insurance bills to the House floor.
The process, she said, brings together stakeholders with competing financial interests. On a particular bill, they might include insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, patients, pharmaceutical companies, and trial attorneys.
She said her approach is to hold non-public “roundtable” sessions to air out issues in the proposed legislation.
The first roundtable on an issue “is a shouting match and I kind of have to referee,” she said.
‘Uncomfortable’ part of democracy
The insurance industry donations are completely legal under the existing system.
Lynda Powell, a professor of political science at University of Rochester and author of a book on campaign contributions in state legislatures, said observers cannot conclude that just because a lawmaker receives money from a donor, the lawmaker is influenced by the donor.
But, she said, groups that give money to lawmakers tend to get better access to them than groups that don’t.
Powell said she could not comment specifically on the Pickett scenario, but she called the pattern common nationwide: Lawmakers who have oversight of particular industries tend to get donations from those industries.
“It is an uncomfortable thing in a democracy,” Powell said. “But the legislators themselves are living in a system that is structured that way.”
Joanne Doroshow, co-founder of the Americans for Insurance Reform coalition that among other things seeks reforms to control skyrocketing insurance rates, said scrutiny of campaign contributions is particularly important now.
Insurance industry money, Doroshow said, might be a key to survival for thousands of small businesses unable to operate normally during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It doesn’t seem someone who has taken such a lot of money, in power like that, is going to help businesses,” Doroshow, who also is executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School, said after learning of industry contributions to Pickett. “And that is going to be very devastating to the economy of the state.”
Heller, of the Consumer Federation of America, said lawmakers who handle insurance industry legislation are in a somewhat unique position.
All insurance regulation happens at the state level, and virtually nothing is done at the federal level, he said.
Hence, the power of state lawmakers over the industry is magnified — compared with their power over other industries — and the flow of money reflects that, according to Heller.
State-level insurance committees, Heller said, are sometimes called “juice committees” because “you can squeeze a lot of campaign cash out of that industry if you are on that committee, and particularly if you are the chair.”
Pickett attributed her House-leading cash balance to her status as a veteran, 20-year member of the House, her seniority among members and her approach to preparing for election campaigns.
All House members must run every two years.
“I kind of like to be prepared,” she said.
But, if she doesn’t feel her own re-election is driving a need for the cash in her campaign account, she said she is ready to help other Republican candidates.
Doroshow said the dynamic of big insurance industry checks going to political campaigns of industry-influencing politicians isn’t unique to Pennsylvania.
In general, she said, the industry is “poorly regulated” at the state level, with California being the only state with strong regulations.
“They are allowed to get away with this because there is little accountability,” Doroshow said. “The insurance industry pretty much gets away with anything it wants.”
Morning Call Capitol correspondent Ford Turner can be reached at [email protected]
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