united states project

A ‘dark money’ push behind Obamacare?

Politico takes a close look at the backers of a new outreach effort
February 1, 2013

This morning, Politico published a fascinating story about a new campaign to support implementation of the Affordable Care Act that will be underwritten by outside funders. The leaders of the initiative include both former White House and Obama campaign officials, and leading executives from the health insurance industry.

Politico’s Kenneth Vogel and Jennifer Haberkorn describe the effort this way:

Organizing for Action, the successor to President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Enroll America, a group led by two former Obama staffers that features several insurance company bigwigs on its board, are planning to unleash the same grass-roots mobilization and sophisticated micro-targeting tactics seen in the 2012 campaign.

Instead of getting people to vote, they’re trying to get people to buy insurance.

If the coalition is successful, 30 million uninsured Americans will get health coverage and the now-unpopular law that Obama’s team pushed through Congress and defended at the Supreme Court could go down in history alongside lauded national institutions such as Medicare and Social Security.

But if large numbers of younger and healthier Americans don’t sign up for coverage this fall alongside the older and sicker ones, the whole thing won’t work.

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The story flags an important development in the growing role of outside money in politics, and makes clear that the “permanent campaign” is not just a metaphor. In 2012, the media was primarily concerned with whether new political institutions backed by shadowy outside donors and special interests could tip elections toward their preferred candidates. Now that the elections are over, it’s time to start looking at what it means for similar groups to get involved with policy implementation. (Organizing for Action is a 501(c)(4) institution, like Crossroads GPS, which means that it is not required by law to disclose its donors–though group has publicly committed to disclosure. Enroll America is a more conventional 501(c)(3) group; according to the Politico story, the organization “would not say… whether it planned to disclose its donors.”)

There’s every reason, of course, for the White House and its political supporters to promote Obamacare’s implementation through a wide variety of means. After the epic political battle to pass the legislation and defend it before the Supreme Court, it makes perfect sense to try to make sure that the law delivers the benefits its supporters fought so hard to bring about. And under the current legal landscape, the plans outlined in the Politico story are perfectly legitimate.

Still, this blurring of lines not just between campaigning and governance but between government outreach and corporate marketing raises important questions for future reporting. For example, the board of Enroll America includes senior executives from Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente and Teva Pharmaceuticals, and its advisory council includes Aetna and CVS Caremark. Do the companies helping to steer the campaign stand to benefit at the expense of their competitors by being on the front lines of enrollment –and will they have opportunities to direct attention away from potential rivals? (CJR’s Trudy Lieberman has noted that Congress recently slashed subsidies for state insurances cooperatives, making it harder for these alternatives to major insurers to get off the ground and market themselves to customers.)

Then, there are important questions about the mechanics of the outreach effort. Will allied groups like Enroll America get access to OfA’s 20 million-strong list of email addresses, or other data collected by the Obama campaign?

With the major looming questions surrounding health care tied in to state-level insurance exchanges and decisions about Medicaid expansion, there are unique opportunities for reporters around the country to jump in here too. What are the strategies these groups are taking to influence key state leaders? For that matter, what about the outside money groups on the right, some of which have declared plans to continue opposing Obama’s agenda?

And as journalists pursue these questions, they can continue to press the case for transparency–holding Organization for America to its promise to disclose donors, and pressing Enroll America and similar groups to do the same.

Beyond the details, Politico’s article demonstrates that while the election is over, the money-in-politics story remains rich. Reporters shouldn’t hestitate to dive in.

Sasha Chavkin is an investigative reporter specializing in the environment, Latin America, and public corruption. He was the lead reporter for OCCRP's "Nicaragua's Forgotten Deforestation Crisis" investigation, and is currently a 2021-22 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.