As President Obama prepares to name a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, we think it’s a good time to examine how a recent landmark decision by the Court, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, could affect the future of health care reform.
Before the ruling, federal law prevented corporations from using money from their general funds on advertisements to support or oppose candidates for elected office. If a corporation wanted to support a candidate, they had to set up a political action committee (PAC), which could raise money through voluntary donations from executives, shareholders, and their families– the corporation itself could only pay for administrative costs.
In the Citizens United case, the majority ruled that these laws violated corporations’ right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Because of this decision, corporations are now free to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
A recent article in prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine, talks about the health effects of the decision. Here’s an excerpt:
The day the case was decided, President Barack Obama called it “a major victory for . . . health insurance companies.” Now, as health care reform efforts continue, insurance companies can select candidates who represent their interests (e.g., increased profits or less regulation for health plans) and devote unlimited funds to advertisements supporting those candidates and attacking their opponents. Critically, these advertisements can run in the days immediately preceding an election, when many voters make a final decision. In fact, after the decision, business groups reportedly began discussing “the potential for unleashing multimillion-dollar ad drives in the last months of the 2010 elections.” This strategy can also be used to influence incumbents. For example, Congress is currently considering a bill to loosen restrictions on the importation of drugs, which could lead to lower prices for certain drugs. Domestic pharmaceutical companies that oppose this bill can influence an incumbent’s vote with the threat of well-funded attack advertisements throughout the reelection campaign.
These new corporate spending powers may be especially important for health policy in the states, where relatively small expenditures on political advertising can influence the outcome of elections. For instance, some states have introduced bills to tax sugar-laden soft drinks as a public health measure. Beverage manufacturers can now spend unlimited funds on advertisements opposing the reelection of legislators who support these and other public health–related bills.
The article encourage doctors, nurses, and public health professionals to do what they can to make their voices heard on important health issues. But in the end, say the authors, a change of law or a possible constitutional amendment might be required to keep corporations from dominating the public discussion.
You can read the entire thing on the NEJM website.