Hospital Lobbyists Awarded Nancy Pelosi for Maintaining the Health Care Status Quo

After her years-long effort to obstruct Medicare for All, Representative Nancy Pelosi has just received an award of honor from hospital lobbyists.

Nancy Pelosi answers questions from the press on January 31, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

A top lobbying group for hospitals gave Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) an award for “her incredible efforts in advancing health care” on Monday, after the former House Speaker spent the past four years fulfilling the industry’s top legislative priority: blocking consideration of Medicare for All or any other major reforms to the insurance-based health care system.

While the American Hospital Association (AHA) says it’s “dedicated to providing high-quality care to all patients,” the lobbying group actually serves the financial interests of its hospital chain members — which profit immensely from the country’s private insurance system.

“Throughout her career, Speaker Emerita Pelosi has been a friend to America’s hospitals and health systems,” said Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the AHA, in a press release announcing Pelosi’s award. “She is a champion for better health care, an advocate for patients, and she continues to work hard to expand opportunities for children, seniors, students, veterans, and the poor.”

The Lever was denied access to the award ceremony event at the AHA’s annual meeting at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington, DC, on Monday evening. When our researcher arrived at the event, an AHA staffer said he would connect him with a communications representative — but instead, a hotel manager then approached and threatened to have the researcher arrested if he did not leave, because he had not registered earlier for the event.

The AHA, which raised $129 million in 2021, is a powerful Washington lobbying operation that represents large hospital chains like CommonSpirit Health, Ascension, and Tenet Healthcare.

Hospitals are a key driver of exorbitant health care costs in the US. While hospitals often criticize the health insurance industry for wrongfully denying patients’ claims and creating financial barriers to care, hospital lobbyists work hand in hand with insurers to preserve our insurance-based health care system. That’s because private health insurers pay hospitals significantly more than they receive from the government-run Medicare program.

The AHA is part of a health care industry coalition made up of insurers, pharmaceutical firms, and hospital companies that spent $81 million from 2018–21 on a TV and lobbying campaign opposing Medicare for All, which would create a comprehensive, universal health care system and eliminate the need for private insurance. The coalition also fought more limited proposed reforms like a public health insurance plan and efforts to lower the Medicare eligibility age from sixty-five years.

When Pelosi spoke at the AHA’s annual meeting in 2019, the organization’s top lobbyist, Tom Nickels, predicted that Pelosi would work to block Medicare for All legislation supported by progressives, in order to protect moderate Democrats in swing districts.

“She’s trying to thread the needle here, and she understands the difficulty that Medicare for All will provide for her caucus and for some of her members who have to go get reelected,” Nickels said. “And my guess is she’s going to be pretty adept in making sure that nothing comes up that harms her members.”

He was right: in the four years that Pelosi was speaker again — the first two with a Republican Senate and president, followed by two years where Democrats had a governing trifecta — the House never held a vote on Medicare for All legislation.

House Democrats additionally never voted on any legislation to create a “public option” or a government-run health insurance plan, as the party and President Joe Biden had pledged they would do during the 2020 election, or on any bill to lower the Medicare age.

Instead, Democrats used the first two years of the Biden administration to put more Americans on private health insurance plans — further enriching health insurers. They did so by expanding subsidies available for individual marketplace plans plagued with high out-of-pocket costs and routine claim denials.

The AHA’s 2021 advocacy agenda included ensuring “the stability and affordability of the health insurance marketplaces by expanding eligibility for and the level of subsidies.” Last year, the group called for those subsidies to be permanently expanded.

On Monday, Pelosi received the AHA’s 2023 award of honor, which it gives to “individuals or organizations in recognition of exemplary contributions to the health and well-being of our nation through leadership on major health policy or social initiatives.”

The organization praised Pelosi for her role in passing the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats’ 2010 health care law, as well as passing a limited drug reform measure that the party passed last year allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices on a handful of drugs for the first time.

According to an AHA blog post, “Pelosi championed the work of AHA members during her speech. She also recognized Wendell Primus, her former senior health policy advisor, who received the AHA Honorary Life Membership Award.”

Primus, who recently retired, opposed Medicare for All as a senior health care adviser for Pelosi. Earlier this month, he told the Washington Post that the concept is “too expensive” and “could never pass.”

In February, Primus received an award for “outstanding government service” from the American Medical Association, a doctors lobby.

The three-day AHA event featured speeches from several Washington lawmakers from both parties, including Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Roger Marshall (R-KS), and Todd Young (R-IN). Reps. Larry Buschon (R-IN), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), and Adrian Smith (R-NE) were there, too.

Then, there was the entertainment — the journalists, pundits, and political operatives who often get paid tens of thousands of dollars or more to speak at industry events like these.

Karl Rove, the longtime GOP strategist and top aide to former president George W. Bush, and David Axelrod, a CNN commentator who served as a senior advisor to former president Barack Obama, spoke during a luncheon for AHA’s political action committee.

While the Lever was blocked from attending AHA’s awards ceremony, the conference featured several prominent representatives of corporate media.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, cofounders of the news site Axios, spoke at AHA’s luncheon for “government relations officers,” meaning lobbyists. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart moderated AHA’s leadership awards luncheon.