Insurance-backed lobbying group attacking universal healthcare in NY is also funded by public hospital and cancer research center

Universal healthcare advocates picketing at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Photo courtesy of Campaign for New York Health © 2020

On Tuesday, dozens of protesters picketed at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s “CEOs Speak” event to protest the Partnership’s efforts to kill the New York Health Act, a plan to create a universal healthcare system in New York State. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP) is a corporate lobbying organization backed by major Buffalo businesses and public institutions, including public hospitals like Erie County Medical Center and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Organizations that took part in the picket included the Campaign for New York Health, New York State Nurses Association, Physicians for a National Healthcare Program NY, Citizen Action NY, Metro Justice, WNY Healthcare for All, and Poor People’s Campaign WNY.

The New York Health Act would extend comprehensive medical care to all New Yorkers regardless of employment or immigration status. A 2018 analysis by the conservative RAND Corporation predicted its enactment would result in $80 billion in health care savings and reduced healthcare costs for 98% of New Yorkers. The act has passed in the New York State Assembly every year since 2015, and was sponsored by 31 out of the 63 members of the New York State Senate in 2019.

While BNP’s aggressive advocacy against the New York Health Act – which has broad support in the public and in the state legislature – seems contrary to the missions of the public entities that belong to the group, it is in line with the interests of the private insurance companies and billionaires that set the Partnership’s agenda.

Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s agenda is set by millionaire health insurance executives and billionaire corporate owners

While a single payer healthcare plan would lower healthcare costs for millions of New Yorkers, it would be devastating for the private insurance industry, whose executives make millions of dollars per year and who have key governance roles at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Executives from the three biggest health insurance providers in the region sit on the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s board of directors. Board chair Arthur Wingerter is President of Univera,  former chair David Anderson is CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of WNY, and board member Michael Cropp is CEO of Independent Health. Wingerter and Anderson both sit on the board’s executive committee.

The three insurance executives on BNP’s board collectively brought home more than $5.1 million in pay funded by Western New Yorkers’ insurance premiums, deductibles, and co-pays in 2018.

Wingerter is the President of Univera, the Buffalo-area subsidiary of Excellus Health Plan, where he was paid $535,243 in 2018. Excellus Health Plan CEO Christopher Booth earned $2.9 million in 2018. David Anderson, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of WNY parent company HealthNow New York, was paid $2.4 million by HealthNow in 2018. Michael Cropp is the CEO of Independent Health Association where he was paid $2.2 million.

In addition to sitting on the BNP board of directors, Michael Cropp is a board member at America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a health insurance industry trade group. AHIP played a major role in lobbying during the development of the Affordable Care Act and was one of the founding members of a new group, Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, that was formed to stymie national movement towards single-payer healthcare.

Cropp is also an appointee to the University at Buffalo Council, the governing body of the largest school in the State University of New York system. The University at Buffalo is itself a Chairman’s Circle member of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a membership level whose annual price tag was $47,994 in 2011.

Other healthcare sector businesses backing Buffalo Niagara Partnership include the two biggest hospital systems in the region, Kaleida Health and Catholic Health. The chief executives of both companies sit on the BNP board of directors.

Athenex, a pharmaceutical company that has received $225 million in public money through Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program, is also a BNP member.

Another key Buffalo Niagara Partnership constituency are Western New York’s billionaires. Jeremy Jacobs, Terry Pegula, and Robert Rich have a collective wealth of $13.5 billion and are on the Buffalo Niagara Partnership board of directors by executives from the companies they own. These billionaires, who can afford to pay out of pocket for the best medical care money can buy, have an incentive to try to kill the New York Health Act. People like them – individuals with high incomes and the owners of companies with many employees – will bear the biggest share of the progressive tax to fund the program.

Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s campaign against the New York Health Act

For several years, stopping the New York Health Act has been a top priority in Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s official advocacy agenda, the menu of policy priorities the group announces at a yearly event attended by state and local elected officials and executives from BNP companies.

The Partnership is also a central member of an astroturf group that emerged in 2018 calling itself the Realities of Single Payer Coalition. The coalition has used social media advertisements to spread disinformation about universal healthcare and has a form on its website to automatically generate opposition emails to state legislators. Other members include a host of other corporate advocacy groups affiliated with BNP, including statewide affiliate the Business Council of New York State, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, the North Country Chamber of Commerce, and Unshackle Upstate, another front group run out of BNP’s offices comprised of leaders from the BNP and the other upstate chambers of commerce.

Creating front groups to give the appearance of popular support for pro-corporate policies is a standard tactic in BNP’s playbook. Over the years, the Partnership has sponsored a host of front groups, such as:

  • Minimum Wage Reality Check, which opposed raising the minimum wage;
  • LNG for NY, which sought to expand fracked gas infrastructure in New York;
  • Under One Roof, currently lobbying to roll back tenants’ rights; and
  • Flexible Work for New York, currently lobbying to allow gig economy companies to avoid labor regulations by classifying workers as independent contractors.

In addition to BNP’s well-funded private insurance industry members lobbying individually against popular progressive policies, BNP also lobbies on the same bills, as do its affiliated chambers of commerce in other upstate regions, the Unshackle Upstate coalition of upstate chambers of commerce run out of BNP’s offices, and the Business Council of NYS, which is a coalition of upstate chambers of commerce and the major corporate interests that make up those upstate chambers.

The effect is to create an echo chamber of voices bombarding policymakers with coordinated talking points all backed by the same set of corporate actors that profit from keeping wages low and denying insurance claims.

Public hospitals and universities legitimize BNP through funding and board seats

Several Western New York colleges and universities have high-priced memberships to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership as is mentioned above in the case of the University at Buffalo and which we wrote about in the context of BNP’s lobbying to kill New York’s ambitious climate change law.

Equally important in the context of BNP’s lobbying to protect insurance executives multi-million dollar salaries is the fact that the Partnership is backed by area publicly owned and funded hospitals and medical care centers.

Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center are both New York State public benefit corporations that belong to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership at the Partnership Circle level. Roswell Park CEO Candace Johnson (who was paid $1.2 million in 2018) and ECMC CEO Thomas Quatroche (who earned $875,000) both sit on the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s board of directors.

Backing a lobbying organization working to keep healthcare costs high is seemingly in direct conflict with ECMC’s public purpose of “providing health care services and health facilities for the benefit of the residents of the state of New York and the county of Erie, including persons in need of health care services without the ability to pay.” The state law designating Roswell Park as a public benefit corporation also draws attention to the institute’s purpose of serving the public “without regard to their ability to pay.”

Under the current private health insurance system, the Commonwealth Fund recently found that 28% of adults with private insurance through their employer and 42% of adults with insurance purchased on the marketplace were underinsured, meaning they have high deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses relative to their income. A December 2019 Gallup poll found that one out of every three Americans have delayed seeking medical care due to the cost.

By funding and lending their credibility to Buffalo Niagara Partnership, ECMC and Roswell Park are using their public money and goodwill to ensure that insurance executives can keep making millions of dollars per year while New Yorkers postpone or forego medical care out of fear of financial ruination.