Background on the Center for Protection of Patient Rights
The topic of this post is the Center for Protection of Patient Rights, which may have started out as something like an astroturf organization, but seems to have become something even more interesting. The Center, which, by the way, seems not to have a web-site, was the subject of an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times in May, 2012. Here is the article's description of how the Center began,
The Center to Protect Patient Rights was created in April 2009, just as the debate over the healthcare bill was heating up. The group's mission was to 'protect the rights of patients to choose and use medical care providers,' according to its corporate paperwork, filed in Maryland.
While never surfacing publicly, the center sent more than $10 million in its first year to groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which took a lead in protesting the measure.
'I think they saw what we were doing and liked it,' said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which got $4.1 million. He said he did not know the source of the center's funding and declined to comment on whether it still supports his group.
So this group supported an advocacy position about health care reform, so perhaps it could be considered an astroturf organization, were we to know it was funded by the health care industry. Many astroturf organizations do reveal support from particular corporations. However, at the time the Los Angeles Times published the report, the source of the Center's funding was unknown.
Furthermore, while astroturf organizations may be eager to get more public notice, presumably so they can further their advocacy, the Center seemed oddly secretive. Its executive director and president is one Sean Nobel. However, as the LA Times article noted,
Noble did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails. Courtney Koshar, a Phoenix anesthesiologist and the organization's only other director, did not respond to requests for comment. And a Phoenix doctor who once sat on its board said he couldn't remember who asked him to join.
'I honestly played very little role,' said Dr. Eric Novack, who headed an organization called the US Health Freedom Coalition that received nearly its entire budget — $1.7 million — from the center to help pass a state ballot measure that aimed to block President Obama's healthcare overhaul.
Support for Political Organizations, not Health Care Advocacy
Even more curiously, despite its name, the most of the Center's spending was not for advocacy about health care reform, but went to organizations that seemed to have little or nothing directly to do with health. As the Times reported,
During the 2010 midterm election, the center sent more than $55 million to 26 GOP [Grand Old Party, that is, Republican Party] -allied groups, tax filings show, funding opaque outfits such as American Future Fund, 60 Plus and Americans for Job Security that were behind a coordinated campaign against Democratic congressional candidates.It seemed that these grants were used for nothing that directly related to health. For example,
The largest share of the center's money went to American Future Fund, a Des Moines-based group started by onetime GOP congressional aide Nick Ryan. The fund, which ran campaigns against two dozen Democrats in the 2010 election cycle, spent $23 million that period, tax filings show, with nearly $13 million coming from the center.
Its biggest target was an up-and-coming Iowa Democrat, Rep. Bruce Braley. In August 2010, American Future Fund launched an ad falsely claiming that Braley supported building a mosque at the former World Trade Center site in New York — the beginning of a $2-million fusillade that included radio ads, robo-calls and nine mailers.
A list of the recipients of the Center's 2010 grants was also publised in the LA Times here.
Where Did the Center Get its Support?
Just before this week's US election, the plot thickened. The LA Times reported that because of the Center's obviously political activities in California, an effort was made to determine its source of funding, but that came up short.
After a frantic court battle, state election officials succeeded Monday in forcing an Arizona group to disclose the identities of contributors that provided $11 million to a California campaign fund.
But the revelations added little clarity for voters. The mystery donors turned out to be other nonprofits, whose individual contributors remained secret.
The money started with the Virginia-based Americans for Job Security and was transferred to a group called the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Over the course of a few days in October it was sent to the Arizona group, Americans for Responsible Leadership, and then transferred again to California.
Finding the source of the money 'becomes daunting,' said Derek Cressman of Common Cause, an activist organization that filed the original complaint about the donation. 'How many layers can you drill through?'
Note that in 2010, the Center for Protection of Patient Rights gave money to the Americans for Job Security, but in 2012, the latter organization gave money to the former - curiouser and curiouser.
Allegations of Illegalities, Including Money Laundering
It turns out the Americans for Job Security has been in trouble before for activities that seemed contrary to state election law:
Americans for Job Security, one of the nonprofits involved in the $11-million donation, was investigated by Alaskan officials for its role in a 2008 mining referendum.
Authorities concluded that the organization's 'sole purpose is to allow individuals and corporations to financially support various causes without having to disclose that financial support.'
That investigation showed how a wealthy landowner sent $2 million to the group, which then funneled most of it back to Alaska to try to fend off construction of a mine near the landowner's property.
Americans for Job Security agreed to a settlement, paying a $20,000 fine and pledging 'not to engage in similar activity' again in Alaska.
In addition, the Mercury News reported allegations that the fund transfers by the Committee for the Protection of Patient Rights were illegal.
two conservative groups, Americans for Job Security and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, are part of a tangled web of so-called dark donors who operate largely out of public view, shielded by their status as nonprofit advocacy groups that are supposedly not involved primarily in politics.
While the groups have been identified, however, individual donors who have bankrolled them remain a mystery.
But 'this isn't going to stop here,' said Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's political watchdog. 'They admitted to money laundering. We agreed to do this without an audit because we wanted to get information to the public before the election. But we in no way agreed this would preclude further action.'
The FPPC determined that the Arizona group, Americans for Responsible Leadership, had violated California campaign law.
Money laundering -- sending money through multiple sources to conceal the original donor -- is a misdemeanor. But a conspiracy to commit money laundering is a felony. It was not clear Monday whether the FPPC or the state Attorney General's Office will pursue criminal charges.
So the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is unknown. At this point, there is nothing public that indicates for whom the Center for Protection of Patient Rights advocates. However, it is hard to conceive that its advocacy is for patients.
So rather than merely being an astroturf organization (a health care policy advocacy group funded by industry money), the benignly named Center for the Protection of Patient Rights appears to be a dark money group whose goals may have allegedly included money laundering to facilitate vast monetary influence on political campaigns by people and organizations whose identities remain secret.
We have often discussed the role of deception in health care, including stealth marketing, stealth public policy advocacy, and stealth lobbying. Now we see health care being used as a vehicle for political deception, stealth political campaigns being disguised as stealth public relations campaigns. The convolutions of the deceptions induce dizziness.
Of course, this is the opposite of the sorts of transparency health care professionals and academics ought to support, and patients and the public ought to demand. How will we ever improve health care when health care organizations are used to hide layer upon layer of deception?
Real improvements in health care require health care leadership dedicated to transparency, honesty, and accountability.