The political arm of an anti-monopoly group is blasting Massachusetts Rep. Richie Neal (D) in a new TV advertisement for “killing a bill” that would have helped health care patients at the expense of a top donor’s bottom line.
The 30-second spot, set to air on network television in the Springfield, Massachusetts, media market for the remainder of July, tells the story of Neal’s last-minute decision to stall bipartisan legislation curbing “surprise” medical billing in December. Surprise billing refers to a practice, widely derided by consumer and patient advocates, in which certain groups of doctors not participating in a hospital’s insurance agreements send insured patients eye-popping medical bills after surgery or another medical procedure.
The ad, sponsored by Fight Corporate Monopolies, a political nonprofit created by the antimonopoly American Economic Liberties Project, alleges that Neal’s dependence on campaign donations from private equity titan Blackstone Group is the driving factor behind his resistance to reform.
Blackstone owns TeamHealth, which owns physician practices that profit from “surprise” billing (the ad calls the practices “hospital monopolies”). And employees of Blackstone have given $48,600 to Neal this election cycle, making the firm his largest source of contributions from a single company.
“Corporate power is corrupting democracy and Richie Neal is part of the problem,” the ad concludes.
Kate Norton, a spokesperson for Neal’s campaign, disputed the premise of the ad.
“The inconvenient truth for this dark money group is that the surprise billing measure they support would actually HURT hospitals and workers in Western and Central Mass, so Richie proposed his own bill,” Norton said in a statement.
Fight Corporate Monopolies is initially spending $150,000 to air the ad in Neal’s home district, but expects to invest $300,000 in total on its dissemination over the coming weeks.
The group’s legal structure as a 501(c)4 nonprofit means it can retain its tax-exempt status as long as it spends just under half of its funds on political activities like the anti-Neal ad. The same legal vehicle enables Fight Corporate Monopolies to raise and spend unlimited funds without having to disclose its donors, so long as it doesn’t coordinate with a candidate or campaign.
“This is fundamentally one of the things that is holding back our economy from working for everyone, which is: politicians take this kind of money, facilitate the consolidation of corporate power and working people lose,” said Morgan Harper, a consumer rights attorney and former Ohio congressional candidate who is a senior adviser to Fight Corporate Monopolies.
The ad, Harper said, is “an effort to make the connections for people because this topic can be a little complicated.”
Faiz Shakir, who managed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, is collaborating with Harper on the launch of Fight Corporate Monopolies, as well as helping the organization navigate the world of political vendors needed to produce ads and buy airtime. Shakir’s wife, Sarah Miller, is executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project.
“Richie Neal is obviously a great symbol of the problem of corporate monopolies,” Shakir said.
Fight Corporate Monopolies is not planning to make an explicit case for ousting Neal and replacing him with someone else.
But the political context is unmistakable. Neal, who took office in 1989 and now chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is facing a spirited challenge from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse in the state’s Democratic primary on Sept. 1. Morse, who is 30 and openly gay, enjoys the backing of Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that powered Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful primary challenges.
Morse has already seized on Neal’s handling of the “surprise” billing as an embodiment of what he sees as the congressman’s corrupt governing style. “This is another example of Neal prioritizing his corporate special interests over the wishes of Republicans and Democrats,” Morse told HuffPost in April.
Now, in addition to disputing the ad’s characterization of Neal’s actions, the Neal campaign is criticizing Morse for receiving the support of a dark-money group. “It’s another hypocritical move that Morse hopes no one will notice, but if he was standing in his principles he would denounce ads like this,” Neal campaign spokesperson Norton said.
Although it is impossible to prove for certain that the campaign cash Neal received from Blackstone played the deciding role in his efforts to stall reforms opposed by Blackstone, the evidence that he was swayed is strong.
Neal had not received donations from Blackstone in the previous three election cycles. Then, in 2019, he began receiving hefty donations from the firm’s top officers. Blackstone President Jonathan Gray contributed $5,600 ― the combined maximum for the primary and general elections. And Neil Simpkins, a senior executive who oversaw Blackstone’s acquisition of TeamHealth in 2016, gave Neal $2,800.
In the fall of 2019, bipartisan “surprise” billing reform appeared to be the rare systemic policy change headed for passage under a divided federal government. With President Donald Trump’s apparent blessing, Senate Republicans had signed off on a proposal to prohibit surprise billing, cap insurance payments to out-of-network doctors at $750 and force them into arbitration to haggle over money above that amount.
But Neal, whose taxes-and-spending-focused committee had only nominal jurisdiction over the billing regulations, ground the process to a halt by presenting his own counter-proposal in December that would give more leeway to hospitals and doctors. A summary of the bill, which Neal introduced with his conservative Republican counterpart on the committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), touted its deference to the “private market dynamics between insurance plans and providers.”
More than seven months later, “surprise” billing reform has not advanced in Congress.
“There’s no question that Chairman Neal’s movement very late in the process to assert his very, very narrow jurisdiction over this issue created uncertainty and slowed things down at the end of the last session,” Frederick Isasi, executive director of the nonpartisan patient advocacy group Families USA, told HuffPost in April.