The Health Care Lobby Is Trying To Buy Corporate Immunity From Both Parties

A health care lobby group hired Trump’s former lawyer and gave millions to Democrats — now criminal nursing home and hospital execs may get special protections from COVID lawsuits.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to members of the media on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday released new legislation that would make New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s corporate immunity statute the law of the land in every state in America — the second time in two months that Senate Republicans have spliced Cuomo’s controversial provision into their proposed coronavirus response legislation.

The GOP’s inclusion of a special liability shield for health care industry executives represents a victory for the powerful New York lobby group that has been paying Donald Trump’s former lawyer to directly lobby the White House on its behalf — and that has been been funneling millions of dollars to congressional Democrats during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to federal records reviewed by Too Much Information (TMI).

In April, the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) drafted the original provision shielding health care industry officials from COVID-related lawsuits, and pushed it through the New York legislature with the support of Cuomo, whose political machine received more than $1 million from the group. Opponents charged that the law repealed a critical deterrent to corporate misbehavior and effectively rewarded executives at nursing homes where thousands of elderly residents were killed by the coronavirus.

Under pressure, New York lawmakers subsequently limited the scope of the liability shield in their state. However, GNYHA’s president last month told state legislators that his organization was pushing a national version of the legislation in Washington, where it has spent $1.2 million on lobbying this year.

In July, the Senate GOP included the same health care executive immunity language in their broader COVID-related stimulus proposal. McConnell’s new legislation shows that GNYHA’s sustained lobbying campaign has continued to pay off: The Republican leader copy and pasted the New York law into the so-called “skinny” coronavirus relief legislation his office released yesterday.

Bill Reflects Push From Trump as GNYHA Employs Trump’s Former Lawyer

McConnell’s new legislation reflects the Trump administration’s push for a liability shield at the same time that GNYHA has hired Trump’s former lawyer and prolific GOP fundraiser Albert Pirro Jr as a Washington lobbyist.

Pirro is a long-time personal friend of the president — their relationship began thirty years ago when Trump hired him as a real estate attorney. He is the ex-husband of Fox News’ Judge Jeanine Pirro and was once sentenced to twenty-nine months in federal prison for tax offenses.

Federal records show Albert Pirro has been directly lobbying the executive office of the president and other White House offices on behalf of GNYHA. The records say he has been lobbying on Medicare issues and do not say he has been lobbying on the corporate immunity issue.

Pirro has only been filing disclosures as a Washington lobbyist since 2017, when Trump became president. GNYHA — which is one of only three Pirro lobbying clients in Washington — has paid Pirro’s firm nearly $2.3 million since hiring him in 2017.

The New York Times recently reported that a number of nursing home companies, some of which have seen spikes in deaths due to COVID-19 along with allegations of mismanagement, have been recruiting Trump allies to lobby on their behalf in DC to secure relief funding, tax breaks, and a liability shield.

Lobbyists close to Trump are working for TL Management, a nursing home operator that has seen dozens of COVID deaths; Genesis HealthCare, the largest nursing home chain in the country; and Life Care Centers of America. In addition to employing his allies, the Times noted that a group of nursing home operators held a fundraiser last year for Trump’s reelection campaign at the InterContinental hotel that raised over $3 million.

Democrats Wavering as Cash Pours Into Party Coffers

The corporate immunity provision’s passage may hinge on whether or not Democrats oppose it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have joined progressive activists in denouncing the GOP effort to include liability shield language in the next relief bill.

However, as GNYHA has poured money into Democratic coffers, there are signs that the party’s opposition is far from guaranteed.

GNYHA has delivered more than $11 million to super PACs backing House and Senate Democrats since 2017, and $2.5 million since the coronavirus crisis began. Amid that flood of cash, some Democratic lawmakers are now suggesting they could support a federal version of New York’s liability shield legislation.

In May, the Hill reported that a number of Senate Democrats were open to the idea of liability protection for businesses to one degree or another. Names included Sen. Chris Coons, who said that he supported “a science-based, enforceable standard for the protection of employees and customers.”

Freshman Sen. Doug Jones and Sen. Tom Carper also said they were in favor of a middle ground while Sen. Joe Manchin said he supported shielding small businesses. Meanwhile, senators Maria Cantwell, Jeff Merkley, Dick Durbin, and Tim Kaine wouldn’t rule out the idea of corporate immunity.

“It’s critical that we combat this pandemic by taking immediate action to make our frontline workers safer,” Kaine declared in May.

But soon after, he suggested that that it isn’t a “completely unreasonable topic” to consider COVID liability protections limiting workers’ rights to sue employers whose workplaces are unsafe.

“On the other side, the Republicans are interested in liability protections, which is not a completely unreasonable topic,” Kaine said during a Zoom meeting held by the American Society of Association Executives in June. “I mean, we often have liability protection in health emergencies. Vaccine makers get liability protection from the federal level. So it’s not unprecedented that in a public health emergency, that you would do some kind of a reasonable liability protection.”

Kaine’s comments came only two weeks after GNYHA poured $2 million into Senate Democrats’ super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC.

In the past, lobbyists have found reliable allies in moderate Democrats in fighting for corporate immunity.

In 1995, for example, Senate Democrats joined with other Democrats in helping Republicans override President Bill Clinton’s veto of a law that increased the amount of evidence required to file a securities fraud case in federal court. In 2008, nineteen Senate Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in backing retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. President Barack Obama also supported that corporate immunity provision.

This story was written by David Sirota, Walker Bragman, and Andrew Perez. You can subscribe to David Sirota’s newsletter “Too Much Information” here.

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David Sirota is editor-at-large at Jacobin. He edits the Too Much Information newsletter and previously served as a senior adviser and speechwriter on Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign.

Walker Bragman is a journalist and JD whose work has been featured in Paste Magazine, the Intercept, HuffPost, the Independent, Salon, Truthout, and the Hill.

Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.

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