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Medical PACs concentrate spending on incumbents

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3 minute read

Political action committees for medically related groups in Kansas tended to throw their money behind incumbent House members before this year’s primary — even if those members did not support all of the groups’ political initiatives.

Fifteen medically related PACs raised about $253,000 and spent about $125,000 this year in the reporting period that ended July 24. Updated reports are due to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission on Oct. 23, before the upcoming general election.

Seven of the smaller medical PACs spent less than $1,000 and didn’t get into any direct support of candidates. Their spending was mostly on administrative matters, like registering with the ethics commission.

The other eight doled out donations of up to $500 for House candidates and $1,000 for those running for statewide offices.

Hospital PAC

The Kansas Hospital Association PAC donated about $21,500 to almost 40 House members, including several who are strong opponents of the association’s effort to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“There’s a number of different topics and legislative issues in determining those individuals who support hospitals,” said Chad Austin, the association’s vice president of government relations. “Medicaid expansion, or KanCare expansion, is just one of those topics we look at.”

Austin said the group also took a great interest in Senate Bill 311, which gradually raises the cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice from $250,000 to $350,000. The hospital association and several other medical groups supported the bill, under the assumption that the modest increase would keep the cap in place by satisfying the Kansas Supreme Court’s concerns about the cap remaining static for decades.

The bill had broad support in the House, passing 120-4.

Austin also said Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s work on that bill was part of what spurred the association to give $1,000 to the Republican’s re-election effort.

“We’ve had some other intersections with the AG’s office in the past as well,” Austin said.

Jerry Slaughter, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society, said preserving the non-economic damages cap has been “probably our largest issue” lately.

The medical society delved into dozens of House races by donating to incumbents this year but did not donate to Schmidt or anyone else running for statewide office. Slaughter said the society has a policy of avoiding statewide races financially.

“We encourage physicians to get involved in those races, but we do not provide support for statewide office candidates from our PAC,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said that policy extends to the Kansas insurance commissioner, who heads the state agency that regulates health insurance.

Medical society

The medical society PAC, pumped up by donations from doctors across Kansas, is the state’s most well-funded medical PAC, with about $167,000 in cash on hand at the end of July after spending about $47,000 during the primary season.

It’s a substantial amount, but small compared with the Kansas National Education Association teachers’ union PAC, which was sitting on $610,000 at the end of July.

Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University, said the strategy by the 15 medical PACs of donating to House candidates rather than competing for broadcast air space in hotly contested statewide races was sound.

“These statewide races, they are sucking up a lot of money and attention, so in politics when you have resources like these PAC groups have, you want to see where you can make a difference,” Beatty said. “This year, it sure looks like it would be the Legislature.”

The Physician Hospitals of Kansas PAC also stuck mostly with donations to House incumbents but notably strayed from that philosophy in two races. The group supported Lonnie Clark in his bid to unseat Allan Rothlisberg in the 65th District Republican primary and Fred Patton in his bid to unseat Josh Powell in the 50th District Republican primary.

Patrick Vogelsberg, a lobbyist for the Physician Hospitals of Kansas, said the group generally has an incumbent-friendly policy but it “shouldn’t take control in all situations.”

“Any time we deal with an incumbent, it’s a fairly strong consideration to get involved and support a challenger,” he said. “But in these situations we felt alright about it.”

Vogelsberg said the group spent time vetting the candidates and was looking for “a candidate who is at least open to our issues” and does “not just summarily dismiss whatever our arguments may be.”

But the group also is looking for candidates who can win.

With about $40,000 in cash on hand, Vogelsberg said the Physician Hospitals PAC had to be “very precise” in its donations, and the decision to support Clark and Patton was vindicated only after the two prevailed in their primaries.

“Any time you’re trying to make recommendations on how clients should contribute, you definitely want to pick who’s going to be the winner in the end,” Vogelsberg said. “You don’t want to throw good money behind a bad candidate just because that candidate is favorable to you. In those situations we tried to pick who was the strongest candidate.”

Andy Marso is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio. He is based at KHI News Service. 

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