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Amerigroup Leads KanCare Companies In Campaign Donations

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The three companies that administer KanCare have donated more than $50,000 to the campaigns of current Kansas legislators since the $3 billion Medicaid program began in 2013.

Amerigroup leads the trio with $27,750 in donations, as of the most recent filings, which include donations through Dec. 31, 2014. Centene Management Corporation, the parent company of Sunflower State Health Plan, gave $17,250 in that time period. United for Health, the political action committee of United HealthCare, came in a distant third with $6,200 in campaign cash.

Amerigroup donated to 20 current senators and 37 current House members, Centene gave to five senators and 26 House members, and United HealthCare donated to nine senators and four House members.

A spokeswoman for Amerigroup declined to comment on the donations. Spokeswomen from the other two managed care organizations (MCO) said Thursday they would find out if their companies wanted to comment, but as of Monday morning they had not.

It’s not unusual for state contractors to donate to state political campaigns, but Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said the sheer size of the KanCare contracts makes the MCO donations worth noting.

“In the case of these MCOs, you’re talking about billions of dollars that have been dispersed,” said Hensley, who received one donation of $500 from United HealthCare.

United HealthCare is different from the other two MCOs in that it also administers plans in the private health insurance market. Amerigroup and Centene deal only in government health care programs.

The KanCare MCOs are the only state contractors that have a legislative committee dedicated to overseeing their performance.

Gov. Sam Brownback's administration selected the KanCare contractors and will decide next year whether to renew their contracts after the initial three-year period. But the Robert G. (Bob) Bethell Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight was formed to be the legislative branch's watchdog on behalf of KanCare beneficiaries and medical providers.

Seven of the committee’s 11 members received campaign donations from one or more of the MCOs.

Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said that creates the appearance of undue influence on the committee’s mission.

“I think it’s always unseemly when any elected official receives money of any kind from organizations they’re supposed to be monitoring, overseeing or awarding contracts to,” Beatty said. “But maybe I’m a radical. For me, it’s not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue.

"We’re talking about human beings here and human beings who say, ‘Well that money is no factor,’ and then ask other human beings to believe that. In most cases maybe that’s true, but certainly in the history of America there’s a lot of cases where it’s not true.”

Largest donations go to those in control

The MCO donations in Kansas were not strictly partisan. All three companies gave at least some money to the campaigns of Democrats.

But most of the maximum donations — $500 per primary and $500 per general election in the House and $1,000 for each election in the Senate — went to conservative Republicans who currently control both chambers.

Amerigroup, for example, donated $500 to House Speaker Ray Merrick’s campaign account in October 2013 and gave another $500 to Merrick’s campaign the day after the 2014 primary — the first day the company could legally do so.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee who chairs the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, received donations totaling $2,100 from all three MCOs.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, received two donations each from Amerigroup and Centene for a total of $1,800.

Hawkins said he would not have any problem with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission banning donations from MCOs if there’s public concern. But he said he rarely sees who donates to his campaigns because his treasurer handles the money. And with the current limits, he said, no one donor can wield much influence.

“If a $500 donation to the campaign switches our mind and moves our vote in a manner it shouldn’t move it, then we’re not doing our job,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins and Rep. Will Carpenter were added to the KanCare oversight committee this year. The other nine members were on it in previous years, when the MCO donations were documented.

Hawkins, who co-chairs the oversight committee with Pilcher-Cook, said he had not seen any instances in which campaign cash seemed to influence the committee’s decisions or aggressiveness.

“If there’s a problem, we’re out there working to get it fixed,” he said.

The $51,200 given by the three MCOs since KanCare started does not include any donations to candidates who were never elected to office or are no longer in office. Nor does it include any contributions they might have given to advocacy organizations that can spend unlimited money on ads attacking or praising candidates without disclosing where the money came from because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case declaring that political spending is a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Beatty said the contributions to third-party organizations could be much larger.

“What America now has is a legally corrupt system,” he said. “It’s all parties, all candidates. This is now a relatively small part of it — which is a company (with a government contract) openly donating to a candidate that is in government.”

Contractor contributions not new

Kansas ethics rules bar donations to legislators during the session, in part to hedge against campaign cash influencing legislative work.

The KanCare oversight committee meets quarterly, during session and in the interim.

Hensley said he remembered serving decades ago on another committee that met in the interim. That special committee was formed to vet the movie industry’s practice of requiring local theater owners to bid on the rights to show movies without knowing which movies they were bidding on.

Hensley said the lobbyist for the motion picture industry caused a media stir by doling out campaign donations to the committee members as the meetings occurred.

“Of course I sent mine back, but it hit the paper,” Hensley said. “It was front page news in the (Topeka) Capital-Journal.”

It does not appear that any of the MCO donations to KanCare oversight committee members coincided with the committee's meetings.

Hensley said groups like the Kansas Association of Contractors have members who get contracts on state projects like highway construction and also donate to campaigns.

But the amount of money in play pales in comparison to the KanCare contracts.

“I don’t know if there’s anything that is as important in terms of the amount of money involved as these MCOs,” Hensley said. “I don’t think there’s anything comparable.”

The Topeka Capital-Journal first reported last year that the KanCare contracts were part of an FBI probe into possible kickbacks and pay-to-play schemes orchestrated by lobbyists with ties to Gov. Sam Brownback. But neither the FBI nor the U.S. Department of Justice has released any details and Republican legislators voted down a proposal to launch an investigation into whether state ethics rules were violated.

Contracts to privatize the state’s child support enforcement — some of which went to a Brownback campaign contributor — also have come under scrutiny in recent years.

Beatty said there is a growing perception nationwide that money buys undue influence on government and it’s something more and more people identify as “the biggest problem in American politics.”

That erosion of confidence, he said, makes campaign donations from state contractors an important topic.

“When you think about companies that receive significant contracts from state government, citizens have to really think whether they should be allowed to donate money to candidates,” Beatty said.

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Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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