Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, speaks on Capitol Hill, July 27, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

News Outlet Founded by Blue Dog Dem Operatives Promotes Big Pharma’s Lobbying Aims

by
in Sludge
on September 7, 2021

Over the past few weeks, nearly a million Facebook users have seen one of a couple promoted stories in their feeds from a political outlet called The Well News. The first, featuring a large photo of conservative Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, says that voters in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District are united in wanting health care reform to be “fiscally responsible.” The second, from the following day, says that voters in Florida’s 7th Congressional District support the fiscal responsibility and bipartisan approach of the similarly centrist Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

Not disclosed in the stories is that The Well News was founded in 2018 by political operatives affiliated with the House Blue Dog Coalition, as reported this weekend for Axios by Lachlan Markay. In addition to promoting glowing stories about Blue Dogs, of which Gottheimer is a prominent member and Murphy is a co-chair, The Well News runs positive coverage and sponsored content for corporate lobbying and consulting clients of the board members of Center Forward, the “dark money” nonprofit affiliated with the Blue Dog Coalition.

The Well News, which claims to reach a total audience of 5 million Americans, was founded by Center Forward’s Executive Director Cori Kramer, a former chief of staff for Blue Dog reps, and Kristen Hawn, a partner at a bipartisan PR shop that has worked for Center Forward in years past. Axios reports the pair have had direct editorial input on the news site with no disclosure in the stories of their roles heading up Center Forward and consulting for it. 

The two recent stories on health care reform covered the results of surveys sponsored by Center Forward claiming that voters are concerned about the national debt and inflation, and want to see their congresspeople reach across the aisle. The Gottheimer story relays the survey result that 80% of over 400 voters in his New Jersey congressional district oppose what it describes as government “interfering” with drug price negotiations between Medicare, pharma companies, and pharmacies. This conclusion runs counter to the results of a Public Policy Polling survey of nearly 600 voters in the same swing district, conducted on Aug. 25 and 26, finding that 75% of respondents support empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drugmakers.

The Murphy story trots out the pharmaceutical industry’s talking point on innovation, used by allies to imply that drug price negotiations would restrict treatments available: “Voters in the 7th Congressional district also expressed profound admiration for American innovation and applauded the role pharmaceutical companies played in responding to the pandemic.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, speaks during a news conference, April 17, 2019, in Fort Lee, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The advocacy group Center Forward says its mission is “to provide centrist allies the information and support they need to craft common sense policy solutions.” Its most recent tax disclosure, for 2018, does not disclose its funders. Sludge previously found that the nonprofit received $1.4 million that year from PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s top lobbying group, and over half a million dollars from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future (PAHCF), a coalition of healthcare industry groups formed to fight single-payer and public option health care proposals. In Nov. 2019, Center Forward sponsored 13 House policy staffers on a California junket to visit a biotech company campus and meet with pharmaceutical executives, shortly before the House voted on a major initiative, H.R. 3, crafted to lower prescription drug prices.

During last year’s elections, Center Forward sponsored positive Facebook ads cheering on pharmaceutical industry innovation after taking in over $2.9 million in donations from PhRMA from 2016 to 2018. Earlier in 2019, around four dozen congressional staff enjoyed a luxury retreat sponsored by Center Forward while hearing from industry groups that oppose a public Medicare option or a transition to a single-payer system, which could save trillions in public and private spending over a decade.

Center Forward’s board of directors is composed of four federal lobbyists. Board Chair Bud Cramer, a former Democratic U.S. representative, and fellow board member Jeff Murray recently hopped over to join lobbying firm 535 Group, whose 2021 client roster includes Facebook, Wells Fargo, and an Alabama-based biotech and agriscience nonprofit, HudsonAlpha. Directors Cindy Brown and Elizabeth Greer are partners at government affairs firm Forbes Tate, whose lobbying clients include PhRMA member companies Eli Lilly USA, Genentech, Gilead, Merck, and others. Greer and Brown are registered to lobby for PhRMA and health care industry coalition PAHCF. The group’s E.D. Cori Kramer received over $376,000 in compensation out of the group’s over $6.4 million in 2018 revenue reported. 

Blue Dog Democrats in Congress have labored in recent years to defend the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, which from 2016 to 2020 spent $56 billion more on stock buybacks and dividends than on research and development, a new House report found. Former House member and past coalition chair Anthony Brindisi of New York pushed in 2019 for stepped-up drugmaker protections in international trade deals. Last month, a group of nine conservative Democrats, nearly all of them Blue Dogs, threatened the House passage of the Democratic budget plan—which currently includes expanded drug price negotiating authority for Medicare, a power supported by large majorities of those polled this summer—unless the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed first.

Another recent report by the research group Commonwealth Fund found that the U.S. trails badly among wealthy nations in health care outcomes, despite spending by far the most on its patchwork system. Last year, national health expenditures passed the $4 trillion mark: some $2.145 trillion from government sources, $1.357 trillion in private expenses, and $405 billion in out of pocket costs, nearly twice as much as the average OECD country as a share of gross domestic product.

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