The System’s Brazen Corruption Is On Full Display: Exhibit A — Kyrsten Sinema And Big Pharma*
31 OCTOBER 2021
The campaign finance system doesn’t just reek of but is defined by quid-pro-quo corruption. Corruption is not the sole province of any political party, candidate or official. In many respects, some may argue, the United States government is a corporatocracy in which immense financial influence in government results in substantial benefits for a small percentage of the population and exacerbates income inequality. The corporate capture of government makes it responsive to the ones with the money. See, e.g., https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/02/opinion/trump-corruption-drain-the-swamp.html
Politics and elections in the United States are driven by the influence money purchases. The democratic process is largely incapable of self-correcting to eliminate the corruption because electing principled candidates who could take such steps depends on money and the influence it purchases. Insisting on voting for someone — more likely a first-time candidate — who claims s/he won’t be corruptly influenced and will fight against the distorting influence of money in politics, may be principled but is naïve at best. S/he will lose or, if elected, become grist for the campaign finance mill.
Money with the influence it purchases has thoroughly corrupted the election process. What’s in the public interest becomes completely distorted, at least in the minds of elected officials. On average, House members spend more than half their working days fundraising, and senators seeking re-election spend two-thirds of the last two years of their terms fundraising. Appointment to House and Senate committee chairmanships is accompanied by huge payments to the majority party. Unlimited dark money under Citizens United is supplied through some 4,000 political action committees. There are some 9,500 registered federal lobbyists (some 1,500 of whom represent Big-Pharma according to Senator Sanders), or about 18 for every legislator, and an unknown number of unregistered federal lobbyists, spending some $3,000,000,000 annually to influence members of Congress. Considering the return on investment, it’s money well spent. Self-interested business insiders and lobbyists have outsized access because of money.
Candidates and elected officials claim, of course, they would never compromise their values. Big (dark) money, they argue, pours in or is used to advance their political careers not to influence them. It is used for election and retention precisely because of their policy positions, not the other way around.
Let’s test that proposition with Senator Sinema and Big-Pharma.
Charcoal on Paper, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
The post-policy GOP is dedicated to undermining the Biden agenda, even where it’s popular among and would benefit members’ constituents. With an evenly split Senate, special interests, at least in the short term, needn’t spend their time and resources on the GOP or more than one senate Democrat to flush from the proposed infrastructure bill any provisions they dislike — that single senator, who purports to represent a tiny fraction of the caucus’s constituents, can tank the entire package.
The relationship between Big-Pharma and Kyrsten Sinema is among the most recent, blatant, and notorious examples. With an about-face, she has proven her brazenness exceeds even that of Senator Manchin.
Sinema was in the House for three terms. During her tenure there, she ran on and advocated the interests of those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, including veterans, those who struggled to make ends meet, who were forced to choose between paying for necessities like food and rent on the one hand and necessities like healthcare and prescription medications on the other. That’s her history. She came from there. She understood. She empathized. She felt their pain. She would be their voice.
Running for the Senate in 2018, she used her own family’s history of struggling with healthcare costs to reassure prospective voters she was and would be their champion: “We need to make healthcare more affordable, with access to the lowest-cost prescriptions, and fix what’s broken in the system.” Sinema’s campaign website said she was all about “making sure Arizonans have access to more health care choices, low-cost prescription drugs, and high-quality, dependable coverage.” During a 2019 Senate hearing on prescription drug prices, she doubled down:
“The issue I hear about most back home is the cost of health care. . . . There’s a gentleman in Mesa, Arizona, who is lucky enough to be insured. But he has seen the price of his medication, to treat a serious lung condition, increase nearly five times in just one year. . . . He’s looked, but there are no generics available that could offer him any financial relief. A woman from Glendale, Arizona, worries about her husband who has a serious heart condition. But his medication costs more than $500 out-of-pocket for a three-month supply. So he refuses to fill his prescription, because he’s worried about how it would impact their family financially. Another Arizona woman struggles to afford her specialty cancer medication. Even though her medication is a generic, she still has to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. And often spends hours on the phone just to understand the unexpected cost increases, and to research payment assistance options. And this, of course, is unacceptable.”
Watercolor, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Sinema created a Veterans Affairs Council to advise her on issues of greatest concern to the half million veterans living in the State of Arizona and the four million disabled veterans across the country. High and rising prescription drug costs was among the most important issues to veterans.
In a February 2020 op-ed, Sinema said: “Congress must address the cost of prescription drugs. Today, even Arizonans who have insurance sometimes struggle to afford the medicine they need. That’s why I’m pursuing policies to ensure life-saving drugs like EpiPens and insulin are affordable and available to Arizonans, especially our senior citizens.”
Sinema was elected on a platform that included prescription drug pricing reform, to “ensure life-saving drugs” were more affordable, to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and save taxpayers and patients billions of dollars. She promised to work toward easing the financial burden of her constituents who fell at the lower end of the economic spectrum and struggle to make ends meet.
Medicare Part D covers retail prescription drugs. Medicare contracts with private plan sponsors to provide prescription drug benefits and endows sponsors with the authority to negotiate drug prices with drug manufacturers. Part D includes what is knowns as a “noninterference” clause. That clause prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from interfering with the negotiations between drug manufacturers and prescription drug sponsors, and “may not require a particular formulary or institute a price structure for the reimbursement of covered part D drugs.” The government therefore has no direct role in negotiating and setting drug prices under Part D.
Big-Pharma charges up to four times as much for pharmaceuticals in the United States as it does in other countries.
Due to the GOP’s blockade and the inability to overcome the inevitable filibuster, Democrats intended to include drug-pricing reform in the Build Back Better infrastructure bill for passage through reconciliation.
At risk to pharmaceutical companies are billions in profits. Big-Pharma found Sinema an easy mark, flooding her campaign committee with hundreds of thousands in PAC money and hundreds of thousands in media ads promoting her in Arizona as “independent” and “bipartisan.”
She opposes the Democrats’ revisions to drug pricing. Her about-face is otherwise inexplicable because she has gone silent with the public, media, activists, and other lawmakers, confirming the nature of her relationship with Big-Pharma as the only explanation for her sudden change.
Watercolor, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Five members of her Veterans Advisory Council resigned last week. They accused Sinema of being “one of the principal obstacles to progress” by refusing to get behind certain of the infrastructure bill’s provisions that “support our veteran community and protect the very heart and soul of our nation.” The resignation letter is eloquent — albeit euphemistic — in describing the quid pro quo corruption that permeates the system:
“In addition to protecting the freedom to vote, your constituents urgently need you to support the Biden agenda, a whole host of policies that would help us address the great challenges of our time: employment, education, healthcare, and infrastructure. However, just like voting rights, you have become one of the principal obstacles to progress, answering to big donors rather than your own people. We shouldn’t have to buy representation from you, and your failure to stand by your people and see their urgent needs is alarming.
“Despite running with a commitment to address exorbitant drug prices, you have failed to support prescription medication negotiation, leaving your campaign promises unfulfilled and hanging your constituents out to dry. We pay more for drugs here in the United States than any other developed country, a reality that forces veterans and citizens to decide whether to pay for rent or for life-saving medications — a choice no person should have to make. You stand by while American companies see dollar signs before human beings, choosing to answer to big donors rather than the working people you’re supposed to represent.
“These are not the actions of a maverick.
“We should have realized this once you showed your true character when refusing to vote to establish a commission to investigate the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“We do not know who has your ear but it clearly isn’t us or your constituents.
“As members of your Veterans Advisory Council for years, we’re deeply concerned by your failure to acknowledge us or seek our input. Today, we feel as though we are merely given performative titles and used as window dressing for your own image — not as resources to provide counsel on what’s best for veterans.
“Given your complete disregard for our input and your unwillingness to act on behalf of your constituents’ needs, we respectfully resign from your Veterans Advisory Council. We no longer feel you are aligned with our values, and we cannot in good faith continue to serve on your council.”
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.