Two right-wing think tanks attacking a universal healthcare bill in New York State are funded – and in one case governed – by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his family. Mercer, who helped propel Donald Trump into the White House, is co-CEO of a hedge fund that manages billions of dollars in investments in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.
On May 19, a group called Reclaim New York published a post on its website slamming the New York Health Act, a bill to create a universal, single-payer healthcare system which has gained support amid fears of Congressional Republican plans to slash Medicaid spending and expand insurance companies’ ability to deny claims. Three days later, Bill Hammond, the health policy director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, published an op-ed in the New York Post calling the bill a “lunatic push for single-payer healthcare.”
Reclaim New York and the Empire Center are both part of a network of extreme conservative non-profit groups with funding and governance ties to Robert Mercer, the reclusive billionaire hedge fund manager who pumped millions into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Mercer also bankrolled Breitbart Media which propagandized for Trump under the command of Stephen Bannon (who is reportedly close to Mercer’s daughter Rebekah) and owns the big data firm Cambridge Analytica, which consulted for the Ted Cruz and Trump campaigns.
Right-wing New York think tanks funded and controlled by Mercer family
The Mercer family has immense power over Reclaim New York, which appears to have no function other than to act as a non-profit front to advance the family’s political agenda in New York State. In 2015, the Mercer Family Foundation’s $1.25 million grant accounted for 100% of the revenue reported by Reclaim New York that year.
Further, the Mercer family and their hangers-on have total control over the Reclaim New York board of directors. Rebekah Mercer and Jennifer Mercer together are half of Reclaim New York’s board of directors. Stephen Bannon, whose Breitbart Media empire had significant investment from Robert Mercer, sat on the board until Donald Trump created the White House Chief Strategist position for him. Bannon was replaced by Reclaim New York executive director Brandon Muir. The fourth board member is Leonard Leo, described by the New York Times as the driving force behind Trump’s Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch. Leo is executive vice president of the Federalist Society, which also gets significant funding from the Mercers – the family donated $2.3 million to the group in 2015 alone.
The Empire Center received $100,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation, the vehicle for Robert Mercer’s charitable giving, in 2015. This equals about 10% of the $1.04 million in total revenue reported by the group from October 2014 through September 2015. Mercer’s $100,000 grant the previous year totaled about 13% of the Empire Center’s declared 2014 revenue.
Universal healthcare would harm Mercer’s financial interests
Besides running contrary to Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s extreme right-wing ideology, a universal healthcare plan in New York State has the potential to impact the family’s bottom line. Robert Mercer is the co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund with significant investments in health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, two sectors to which universal healthcare presents a major threat.
The number 5 and number 11 companies in Renaissance Technologies’ portfolio are the health insurance companies Humana and Aetna. The firm’s 2.7 million shares of Humana were worth $555 million and its 3.1 million shares of Aetna were worth $397 million at the end of the first quarter of 2017. Universal healthcare would eliminate the need for most New Yorkers to buy insurance from private companies, though private insurers could offer coverage for medical care not covered by the universal plan.
Aetna attempted to acquire Humana in 2016, but the Department of Justice sued to block the deal, prevailing in a January 2017 court decision. Aetna is currently a defendant in a class-action shareholder lawsuit over allegedly attempting to leverage its participation in healthcare exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act to get the DOJ to drop its suit. In July 2016, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini sent a letter to the DOJ saying, “It is very likely that we would need to leave the public exchange business entirely and plan for additional business efficiencies should our deal ultimately be blocked.” The company pulled out of ACA exchanges in 11 of the 15 states it served shortly thereafter.
Renaissance Technology’s top 15 holdings also include 16.4 million shares of the medical device manufacturer Novo-Nordisk valued at $563 million, 7.7 million shares of Gilead Pharmaceuticals valued at $523 million, and 2.4 million shares of Amgen valued at $396 million. An economic analysis of the New York Health Act estimated that the plan would result in $16 billion in reduced spending on pharmaceuticals and medical devices in New York State by negotiating lower prices.
The New York Health Act, which has been introduced in the New York State legislature every session by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried for 20 years, has passed the State Assembly every year for the past three years, but has never been brought to a floor vote in the State Senate.
In the 2017 session, however, the bill has drawn more Senate sponsors than ever before, and the recent attacks from the Mercers’ camp seem to indicate they’re nervous that the bill has gained traction. Increased interest in universal healthcare and an upcoming special election leave the bill “just one vote, and one governor’s signature, shy of becoming law,” according to the Empire Center’s Hammond.