Does the Chamber represent employers or insurers?

This election cycle, a national spotlight has been placed on the political actions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, particularly as they run political ads and other issues campaigns without disclosing the source of the funding for those activities. In this election cycle, the Chamber of Commerce has been spending millions of dollars in ads attacking Democratic candidates—without revealing where that money is coming from.

Questions have been raised about whether some of these dollars are from foreign corporations with which the Chamber has relationships–and if those dollars are thus going to support policies that benefit those foreign corporations, on issues from outsourcing to tax breaks.

Even putting aside the question of foreign sources of funding, there’s a more profound question in this controversy: who does the Chamber of Commerce really represent?

This question has come up repeatedly in the past few weeks about the California Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber has been a main proponent and funder of Proposition 26, which would make it much harder to get corporations to pay mitigation fees for the environmental or health harm they cause. In this role, they serve as a fund for tobacco, oil, insurance, and other corporations to funnel their money into, in order to support this special interest measure.

On a similar issue, two bills were on the Governor’s desk last month to set up a new health insurance exchange. Beyond implementing the new federal health law, the bills created a new purchasing pool for many California families and small businesses to negotiate with the health insurers for the best price and value.

Anthem Blue Cross and some other insurers opposed this and other provisions, and actively sought Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto. But they got the California Chamber of Commerce to be the main public voice of opposition—including commissioning a study against the bills, and running full-page ads in several California newspapers. It would be strange for the Chamber to take the lead on such a specific health insurance issue–so many suspect that the Chamber was acting on behalf of Anthem Blue Cross, a member and contributor to the Chamber. The Chamber was likely used as the mechanism for Anthem and other insurers to fund an opposition effort, without exposing the clearly self-interested motive.

In serving as a receptacle for corporate cash from industries with specific interests, the Chamber seems to going against the actual interests of the rest of their membership–as it did with health reform in general (see my post in The New Republic earlier this year).

In fact, the Exchange bills–the ones that the Chamber opposed–are a big boon to small business: the exchange will be the way that thousands of small businesses in California will be able to access significant federal tax credits to help afford health coverage. The ability to negotiate for the best price—which the insurers oppose—would help individual entrepreneurs and small businesses get the benefit of bulk purchasing that only large employers and purchasers like CALPERS have now. Other business groups supported the exchange bills.

But it seems the Chamber chose their members in the insurance industry over the many members who have to pay the insurers’ high prices.

Why is this the case? Perhaps it’s their structure: the Chamber’s health policy committees are often dominated by insurers and other sectors of the health industry—even though in many policy debates the health sector has a very different interest than the employer community as a whole, which is mainly interested in bringing down health costs.

That’s why it’s discouraging to see the Chamber also act as a funder of ads to influence the race for the crucial post of Insurance Commissioner. The Chamber is collecting millions of dollars in insurer and insurance-related money, and then running millions of dollars in ads in support of Assemblyman Mike Villines, the Republican candidate, and against Assemblyman Dave Jones, the Democratic candidate.

The Chambers’ members in the employer community—who pay everything from worker’s comp fees to health insurance rates—probably have a strong interest in supporting an aggressive watchdog on insurance rates. So it seems antithetical to the interest of many employers to attack the candidate who has a track record of providing aggressive oversight over the insurers, Assemblyman Dave Jones. Jones has been the lead sponsor of bills to regulate health insurance rates, weed out “junk” insurance that leaves people with significant medical debt, and to end gender discrimination in health rates.

It makes sense why insurers would fund opposition to the leading legislator on rate regulation–but why would employers? The Chamber seems to be following only the interests of the insurers on their board, rather than those “special interests” who have a stake in lower insurance rates and better service: the rest of us.

This political season, we should take another look at political advertisements from the Chamber of Commerce, JOBSPAC, and related entities–and be clear who is actually funding the ads, and what their interest is. And members of the Chamber should take a second look to see if their interest is being served by the Chamber’s positions, on legislation, propositions or candidates for statewide office.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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