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Health orgs. backed Ohio’s pandemic response, then gave money to politicians working to undermine it

Tyler Buchanan, Ohio Capital Journal

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The state House of Representatives, where most Republicans decline to wear masks or practice social distancing. (Photo: Ohio Capital Journal)

As Ohio lawmakers considered a bill last November to allow themselves to strike down public health orders, a handful of organizations banded together to state their unequivocal opposition.

“Now is not the time to let up. The public health crisis is not over,” the organizations told lawmakers.

This disagreement in a matter of life and death did not keep one of the groups from supporting the campaigns of those advocating for the bill. The Ohio Hospital Association had already donated money to both Republican sponsors of the bill, Sens. Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Rob McColley of Napoleon.

The Ohio Osteopathic Association, representing thousands of physicians and medical students, was another organization that came out against the bill.

“(W)e should ensure health decisions are made by health professionals,” wrote Matt Harney, the OOA executive director.

Just two weeks before, Harney’s association cut the Roegner campaign a check.

For much of the past year, Republicans in the Ohio legislature have sought to undermine state officials’ ability to respond to the pandemic. Their fundamental dispute with the public health response to COVID-19 — and the broad rejection of basic pandemic safety guidelines — did not appear to impact the level of support offered to them by an array of Ohio health organizations.

Such groups spent much of 2020 promoting masks to the general public, then bankrolled the campaigns of lawmakers who have refused to wear them. Groups who publicly supported the health orders issued by DeWine and ODH continued to give money to politicians who forcefully pushed back against those orders.

Associations urging Ohioans to get their COVID-19 vaccines nevertheless backed a Republican legislator who has been vocal in his skepticism toward immunization.

The Ohio Capital Journal reviewed campaign finance records for 20 different health-related trade associations which represent a vast number of healthcare professionals, nursing homes, hospitals and pharmacies throughout the state of Ohio.

This is what OCJ found:

Groups spent far more $ on Republicans than Democrats

The first bills targeting the Ohio Department of Health’s authority came as the state legislature reconvened in May 2020. From that month on, health trade associations preferred to spend more money on Republican lawmakers than Democrats:

Republicans have sponsored nearly two-dozen bills on the subject of COVID-19 mitigation over the past year. Various proposals have sought to invalidate existing health orders, rescind the state of emergency declaration and effectively give GOP lawmakers veto power over orders they disagree with.

Though only a few of these bills have reached the governor’s desk, there has been widespread support for this legislation among the entire Republican caucuses within the Ohio House of Representatives and Ohio Senate.

In one example, all 61 Republicans in the House supported a “Truth in COVID-19 Statistics” bill last June introduced by Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chesterland. Grendell testified her belief in a committee hearing that ODH deliberately reported “one-sided and woefully incomplete” data in order to promote “fear and despair.”

By and large, Democrats have opposed this slate of legislation. There were two exceptions in 2020: A dozen members voted for Senate Bill 55, a bill meant to deter drug trafficking near schools and addiction treatment facilities that included a provision to reduce penalties for violating ODH pandemic health orders; even more Democrats supported House Bill 621, which sought to ensure fairness regarding businesses that could be shut down by a health order.

The remaining bills targeting ODH’s authority have been exclusively introduced, co-sponsored and voted for by Republicans.

Besides legislation, the House and Senate GOP Caucuses have rejected calls by Democrats and advocacy groups to mandate masks be worn at the Ohio Statehouse and to allow for virtual testimony at committee hearings.

Republicans held 64% of the seats in the Ohio General Assembly last year, but received 80% of the donations from health organizations during the time period of May 1 through Dec. 31.

The Detroit News previously reported a similar trend in Michigan, noting that most health associations there gave more money to Republicans. The GOP also holds majorities in both Michigan legislative chambers.

The Detroit newspaper wrote that lawmakers’ “contributions arrived as a high-stakes fight played out in Lansing over the Democratic governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic with Republican lawmakers usually arguing that her administration’s policies were overly restrictive and often unnecessary.”

Supporting Ohio’s COVID-19 response, then donating those critical of it

The Ohio Nurses Association was among the early supporters of the DeWine administration’s aggressive response to the pandemic. ONA led a social media campaign in favor of the governor’s search for more N95 masks and the group regularly shared information from coronavirus press conferences (with use of the state’s preferred hashtag, #InThisTogetherOhio).

In May 2020, House Republicans took a bill from the Senate that hadn’t received a hearing in 11 months and added in a new provision dealing with the state health department. Senate Bill 1 wanted to require that public health orders be approved by a small group of lawmakers in order to stay in effect beyond two weeks.

The amendment to Senate Bill 1 was offered by Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster; advanced by the committee he chaired just 30 minutes later; and approved by the full House chamber later that afternoon.

This sent the bill back to the Senate. ONA criticized the legislation and bemoaned the amendment that was “snuck into SB 1.” The organization wrote on Facebook that it “created a grassroots campaign to target key Senators” to urge them to vote against the bill. The post included a poster with the phrase, “Nurses Support Dr. Acton.”

The bill failed in the Senate. ONA went on to donate $1,000 to Wiggam’s campaign.

It was also in May 2020 that Sens. McColley and Roegner introduced Senate Bill 311. In its original form, SB 311 was similar to SB 1 in that it sought legislative approval in order to extend health orders beyond two weeks.

SB 311 went even further, proposing to rescind Ohio’s stay-at-home order and do away with orders keeping any businesses closed.

ONA only donated to one candidate during the entire summer — a $2,000 contribution to McColley’s campaign a month after SB311 was introduced. The association gave McColley an additional $2,500 in September, along with $1,000 to Grendell.

There are numerous other examples of organizations lending public support to DeWine’s COVID-19 response, then donating money to lawmakers working to undermine it.

The Ohio Osteopathic Association and the Ohio Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians praised DeWine for issuing a mask mandate in July.

A joint news release from them and other health associations read, in part: “This measure will save thousands of lives by dramatically slowing the spread of COVID-19. Our support is based on science and evidence.”

In September, with the number of new COVID-19 cases on the rise, Grendell introduced a bill to terminate the COVID-19 state of emergency declaration and remove the mask mandate.

Two weeks after that bill was introduced, the Ohio Osteopathic Association donated $350 to Grendell’s reelection campaign. Another two weeks later, the Ohio ACEP chapter gave her campaign $500.

SB 311 returned to the foreground that fall. By then it had morphed into a bill to allow the entire legislature to rescind health orders via concurrent resolution and to prevent the state from issuing widespread quarantine orders.

The state senate passed SB 311 with little resistance, but health officials mobilized in opposition as it progressed through the House. Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the newly-appointed chief medical officer of the state health department, testified against the bill at a mid-November hearing, as did a number of other officials representing county governments and hospital systems.

Five other organizations issued joint testimony against SB 311, including the Ohio Hospital Association (OHA). The testimony noted Ohio was at that time experiencing “unprecedented increases” in new cases, hospitalizations and ICU stays.

Were SB 311 to be enacted, they wrote, “our organizations fear there are millions of Ohioans who will be put at risk and whose safety will be compromised.”

State Sens. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, and Rob McColley, R-Napoleon. Photos courtesy the Ohio General Assembly.

Sponsoring a bill to potentially put millions of Ohioans’ lives at risk was not a deal breaker for OHA during election season. The group donated to both of SB 311’s main sponsors.

Scott Borgemenke, senior VP for advocacy for OHA, said the organization decides its donations based on a “totality of circumstances.” The health care industry is “very complicated” and involves many different aspects, he said, meaning there is no politician whose positions perfectly align with that of the association’s.

Borgemenke said his association has been in close touch with lawmakers about hospitals’ needs during the pandemic. OHA gave money to lawmakers who were receptive to having such conversations, he said.

The Ohio Osteopathic Association did not respond to a request for comment about its donations to SB 311 sponsors.

Health groups donated to Ohio legislature’s most prominent vaccine skeptic

A state representative who has made headlines for his skepticism toward vaccines was among the biggest recipients of campaign donations from health associations in 2020. Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, served as chairman of the House Health Committee last term and was renamed to the position for this term.

Last August, the Ohio Capital Journal reported that Lipps participated in a video conference with a prominent anti-vaccine group the previous April. Members discussed their concerns about how the Ohio legislature would approach an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

“I need help with members of the health committee, because we’re going to face a couple huge bills that are gonna matter,” Lipps told them.

“We’re gonna face a couple bills that this group does not like. And I have to have energy to stop this vaccine shit that’s coming.”

The article on Lipps was republished by The Cincinnati Enquirer and News 5 Cleveland.

This did not stop health associations from supporting his reelection effort in the months that followed, even as they have promoted the COVID-19 vaccines on their websites and social media pages.

The Ohio Nurses Association has a post about vaccines pinned to the top of its Facebook page: “If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 has got to be the year of vaccinations.” The association donated $3,000 to Lipps’ campaign in September.

The Ohio Association of Advanced Practice Nurses provided resources for how health care facilities could sign up to be COVID-19 vaccination providers. The group also promoted a dinner meeting about “Vaccine Hesitancy/advocacy” a few weeks after donating $750 to Lipps.

After the election, Lipps was featured in an AJ+ news report which highlighted his comments to the anti-vaccine group. In the December 2020 interview, he claimed there hadn’t been proper studies on COVID-19 vaccines to that point.

Asked about his video conference with the group in April, Lipps told AJ+: “I meant, until we have the proper studies, and understand what we’re putting in our body, we’ve got to slow it down. I don’t mean to stop it. That’s a strong term. And I did use that term. But I think slow it down is a better term.”

Lipps later told The Dayton Daily News in February he does not plan to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He doubled down on his skepticism about the scientific review of vaccines prior to being offered to the public.

“I don’t understand the science. I really am not convinced. I’m really worried about the trials,” he told the newspaper.

The Warren County lawmaker describes himself not as being anti-vaccine, but instead being in favor of medical freedom for Ohioans to choose whether or not to be vaccinated. Lipps co-sponsored a bill last term proposing that schools be required to notify parents and guardians how children can opt out of youth vaccination requirements.

In total, Lipps received more than $12,000 in donations from health associations in the last four months of 2020.

OCJ contacted nine of these organizations about their contributions to Lipps, asking if they were aware of his “stop this vaccine shit that’s coming” remark prior to donating and if they planned to continue financially supporting him in the future.

The Ohio Pharmacists Association, with a mission statement of “promoting public health through education, discussion and legislation,” donated $1,000 to Lipps. Ernest Boyd, the group’s executive director, wrote in an email this donation stems from years of support from the lawmaker on pharmacy matters.

“Since 2017, few lawmakers have taken such a keen interest in pharmacy practice issues, prescription drug prices, and patient access to care — all vital public health matters — than Representative Lipps … Those characteristics are frankly our PAC’s primary consideration for candidate support,” Boyd wrote.

Boyd continued that he views any broad characterization of Lipps as anti-vaccine to be “purposeful, false shorthand.”

Lipps has fought for allowing pharmacists to be compensated for administering vaccines, Boyd noted, and he previously supported a bill to allow podiatrists to administer flu vaccines.

“For the more than four years I have known Representative Lipps, I have understood his positions on making all vaccines broadly available, protecting local access to those vaccines, ensuring proper incentives for providers to offer them, and to maintain an individual’s right to choose whether or not to receive one,” Boyd wrote.

The Ohio Hospital Association acknowledges that its views differ from Lipps on the subject of vaccines.

“We disagree with his position and his statement on this,” said Borgemenke, the group’s senior VP for advocacy. OHA donated $1,000 to Lipps.

Borgemenke said the organization would “like to have more friends on this vaccine issue than we do,” but noted Lipps has otherwise provided an open door as a lawmaker toward helping out Ohio hospital leaders.

LeadingAge Ohio, which represents hundreds of long-term care organizations and hospices, declined to comment on its $500 donation to Lipps.

OCJ did not hear back from the Ohio State Medical Association, Ohio Osteopathic Association, Ohio State Association of Nurse Anesthetists, Ohio Nurses Association, Ohio Association of Advanced Practice Nurses or the Ohio chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians regarding their donations to Lipps.


This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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