A lobbyist for the American Hospital Association last week held a fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, raising questions about the fuzzy line between personal advocacy and the industry's political agenda.
The AHA was not at all involved in the "private event" held last week at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican social club in Washington, association officials said, but Washington lobbyists and industry observers were far from convinced. They said it was unlikely that the event hosted by Mary Beth Savary Taylor, the AHA's vice president of executive branch relations, was orchestrated by her alone.
"I'm sure the AHA had to use their good sources to organize the event," one lobbyist said, adding that it was a "smart move for the AHA to embed itself with the Bush administration."
At a time when healthcare providers are awaiting the outcome of a major Medicare reform bill, fund-raisers that curry political favor with the president-even when hosted by individuals-can add significant volume to the voice of advocacy groups like the AHA.
"There's no rule that says a lobbyist can't fund raise for the president as an individual," said Celia Wexler, director of research at Common Cause, a Washington-based citizens' lobbying group. An event like the one held last week, she added, "puts you in the cat's seat as far as getting your agenda looked at by the president."
Savary Taylor's fund-raiser followed on the heels of recent Bush administration actions that were helpful to hospitals, including a relaxation of the rules for treating indigent patients in emergency rooms and a decision not to require hospitals to administer patient-satisfaction surveys.
Under Federal Election Commission rules, associations cannot make direct contributions to federal campaigns. Anyone who hosts a political fund-raiser, according to the FEC, must use their own funds and limit to one hour per week the time they spend on the fund-raiser at their full-time job. As far as the FEC is concerned, a spokesman said, there are no additional or special rules governing lobbyists.
It was no coincidence, several lobbyists said, that Savary Taylor's function took place the same week as the AHA's national meeting of its regional policy board, which assembles periodically to discuss issues important to AHA members. Some 300 hospital executives were in Washington last week for that meeting, according to an AHA spokeswoman.
About 50 people were expected to attend the event, which did not include an appearance by Bush or Cheney, Savary Taylor said.
The AHA does not keep records of the fund-raisers its employees organize, a spokeswoman said, but it's highly likely that one or more have hosted similar events for Democrats.
"It does happen that I work at the AHA," Savary Taylor told Modern Healthcare last week. "It's my day job, but this is personal money," she said, referring to the Bush campaign contributions she and others made at the gathering.
While she did not provide the number of attendees who were also AHA members, Savary Taylor said on the day of the event that "a number of people who will be there tonight are in the hospital community." She added that as a lifelong supporter of the Republican Party, her personal goal is to raise $100,000 for the president, which would make her a "pioneer" in the terminology of the Bush fund-raising team. Pioneers, sources said, are few in number and are viewed favorably by the White House.
One day after her fund-raiser, without specifying how much money she raised, Savary Taylor said the event went "very well," adding that as far as reaching pioneer status, "I'm almost there." Calls to the Bush-Cheney campaign were not returned at deadline.
Frank Perez, an AHA board member who attended the fund-raiser, said he had no concern of any appearance of impropriety on the part of the AHA, which has a policy of not endorsing presidential candidates. The event was organized by Bush supporters, said Perez, who is chief executive officer of Kettering (Ohio) Medical Center Network.
Perez said it was his understanding that the event was organized independently of the AHA. The fund-raiser had no minimum donation limits, he said.
Calls to AHA Executive Vice President Rick Pollack and association spokesman Richard Wade were referred to association spokeswoman Alicia Mitchell.
Asked if the AHA invited anyone to attend the function, Mitchell said only that AHA personnel "encouraged people in our field who supported the president to participate in the event if so inclined." She added: "This is a private event, not an AHA event."
Lobbyists outside the AHA said last week that the AHA's policy meeting represented an ideal opportunity for the group to assemble its membership for Savary Taylor's fund-raiser. Savary Taylor did not directly answer questions about the timing of her event, saying only that "I strongly support the president and wanted to do this."
If AHA officials other than Savary Taylor acted on behalf of the association to invite people to the fund-raiser, it could be construed as a real contribution and raise legal red flags, Wexler said. Savary Taylor said she personally sent the invitation letters, and that "my daughter helped me stamp them."
A perception persisted, however, that the event was at least associated with the AHA. When approached by Modern Healthcare, one fund-raiser attendee, before being asked any questions, said, "I think you better talk to the AHA about that."
The AHA maintains a policy of not becoming involved in presidential campaigns as an association but does not prohibit its employees from doing so.
"This is not about getting around any rules," Savary Taylor said. "It's Mary Beth Savary Taylor doing this and being a pioneer. The AHA does not get involved in presidential elections." Savary Taylor also has worked as an attorney for the American Medical Association and has served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).
Several observers said that the AHA could only benefit from Savary Taylor's Bush event.
An AHA official hosting a fund-raiser completely apart from the association she represents "is like Bill Clinton having a big dinner and saying it's not for the Democrats," said Charles Inlander, president of the People's Medical Society, an Allentown, Pa.-based consumer group. "I don't think it's appropriate. People are entitled to a private life but ... lobbyists have to be careful that what they do privately is not interpreted as a crossover to what they do professionally."
But it's not uncommon for association officials to hold their own fund-raisers independent of the interests they represent professionally, said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. Still, he added, "It's disingenuous for the industry to say they're not involved."
Lobbyists contacted for this story, none of whom wanted to be identified by name, said last week's fund-raiser was widely viewed as an AHA-sponsored event, even if that was not technically the case.
One veteran industry lobbyist said: "Everything you do in the legislative, fund-raising and grass-roots arenas should be to support what your members need."
Federation of American Hospitals President Chip Kahn said he would allow employees of his organization, which represents for-profit hospitals, to host fund-raisers as long as all applicable laws were followed. "I know that people are raising money for the president, and if (Savary Taylor) is doing this as a volunteer, I don't see why this is a problem," Kahn said.
A spokeswoman for the AMA declined to comment specifically about Savary Taylor, saying only that the "AMA as an organization does not endorse presidential candidates but encourages all physicians to get involved with the campaigns of candidates of their choice."
As for how Democrats on Capitol Hill might react, one Democratic aide said the fund-raiser is nothing out of the ordinary.
The AHA "can't control what people do on their own time," the aide said. The fund-raiser won't cause much of a stir on Capitol Hill, she said, because members of both parties understand that "these are the kinds of things people are forced to do when money is such an overriding factor. Is it the way things should work? No. But is it the way they do work? Yes."
Some hospital administrators agreed that Savary Taylor's fund-raiser is simply part of the political process.
"Lobbyists make their living getting close to politicians," said Dan McLean, CEO of 326-bed George Washington University Hospital in Washington. "For this lobbyist to be effective for the AHA, I think they'd expect (her) to do something like this. ... I don't have any problems with lobbyists getting close to decision-makers."
With Congress in the throes of Medicare reform, the AHA, like many healthcare advocacy groups, has a lot on the line right now. For weeks Washington observers have said it would take the efforts of Bush and his senior staff to push House and Senate negotiators toward agreement on the chambers' $400 billion prescription drug bills.
That legislation would boost payments to struggling rural providers by some $25 billion over 10 years. The AHA has a stake in other provisions, too, including a House plan to update hospital payments at a rate below inflation for the next two years and a Senate plan to restrict physician referrals to specialty hospitals in which they share ownership.
Looking at the situation from a broader perspective, Inlander said, "The AHA has to be worried that this sends a message to the world that they are not particularly unbiased about the administration. I don't think that's proper."
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