Discover more from The Bulwark
The House COVID subcommittee has anti-vaxxers and some of the insurance industry's top allies
Some subcommittee members receive big checks from the nation’s biggest health insurers.
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers! Today we’re going to look at the new members of the House COVID Subcommittee—which, as expected, features a range of conspiracy theorists, chief among them Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But as you’ll see, there is a lot more going on with the members on this panel that poses a risk to vaccination efforts and health policy in general.
Subscribe to receive Press Pass every Tuesday and Thursday.
Last week, Republicans announced their assignments for the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, a range of lawmakers with different backgrounds in medicine, law, business, and the trafficking of conspiracy theories.
Some of the subcommittee’s Republicans have said they believe COVID vaccines are causing swathes of athletes to die (this is entirely false). Some have said the vaccines are to blame for nearly every new instance of heart problems across the United States (after all, it’s not like this is a country with a long history of poor cardiovascular health brought on by lifestyle, diet, and other factors). In reality, studies have demonstrated that there is a bigger risk of sudden heart problems in getting a severe case of COVID itself than in taking the vaccine.
The members elevating these misdirections, lies, and conspiracies include:
Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia), who claimed last week that “we have no idea what is in Covid vaccines” (the full list of ingredients for each type has been publicly available for years), misled the public last year about polio vaccine procedures, falsely said that 7-8 percent of people who receive the vaccine have to go to the hospital (it is closer to 0.03 percent, with zero hospitalizations for children ages 5-11), and back in 2021 referred to proposed vaccine “passports” as the “mark of the beast.”
Debbie Lesko (Arizona), who herself has been vaccinated, also sounded the alarm back in 2021 on proposed vaccine passports and inquired with the Centers for Disease Control about vaccine death count theories.
Ronny Jackson (Texas), the former White House doctor who reportedly over-prescribed opioid medications and drank on the job, recently said Dr. Anthony Fauci has “the blood of millions of Americans” on his hands.
Rich McCormick (Georgia), a physician who was at one point a fierce advocate of vaccines and the success of Operation Warp Speed, but upon announcing a bid for Congress in 2021, pivoted to a position of vaccine skepticism and said, “If a 12-year-old or 15-year-old doesn't want to get the vaccination, and their parents don't want them to get the vaccination—who really cares?”
Michael Cloud (Texas), derided the vaccine as “experimental” in his quest to remove legal protections for vaccine manufacturers.
It’s more than just conspiracy theories
There are several other members—on both sides of the aisle—who arguably pose a different sort of threat to the integrity of the subcommittee’s work: members who regularly receive sizable campaign donations from the corporate political action committees of the major health insurance companies.
Across three major corporate PACs operated by insurance giants UnitedHealth, Humana, and Cigna, four Republicans and two Democrats on the subcommittee received thousands in primary and general election donations in the most recent election cycle. According to Federal Election Commission filings,
Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee and co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus, received $7,500 from Humana, $5,000 from Cigna, and $2,500 from UnitedHealth.
John Joyce of Pennsylvania received $2,500 from Humana, $6,000 from Cigna, and $8,000 from UnitedHealth.
Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa received $6,500 from UnitedHealth.
Nicole Malliotakis of New York received $1,500 from UnitedHealth.
Democratic ranking member Raul Ruiz of California received $5,000 apiece from Humana and Cigna, plus $9,000 from UnitedHealth.
Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell received $2,500 from Cigna.
The vaccine makers also gave to a few of the committee members. While Moderna does not operate a corporate PAC, Pfizer’s and Johnson & Johnson’s PACs doled out big checks to a few of the members last cycle:
Wenstrup received $5,000 from Pfizer and $6,500 from J&J
Joyce took $5,000 from Pfizer and $1,000 from J&J
Malliotakis received $1,500 from Pfizer
Ruiz received $5,500 apiece from Pfizer and J&J
Dingell received $5,000 from Pfizer and $2,500 from J&J
Deborah Ross, a Democrat from North Carolina, took $2,000 from Pfizer.
Kweisi Mfume, Democrat of Maryland, took $1,000 from Pfizer.
These corporate PACs donate to key members across both parties in the House and Senate, increasing the volume when a lawmaker’s legislative priorities align with their own. It’s hard to find a member of Congress who does not accept corporate PAC donations, particularly from industries relevant to their committee work. Companies and their respective lobbyists, who are both in-house and contracted out to specializing firms, maintain alliances with lawmakers to keep their business from facing policies that may hurt their bottom line and ability to do business.
The donations in this case are noteworthy because right now the health insurance industry, which made a fortune during the first two years of the pandemic, has experienced increased tensions with vaccine makers and medical providers.
Aventus, which conducts COVID testing and other lab services, filed a class action lawsuit in December against United Healthcare for failing to reimburse for 34,000 COVID tests. Aventus and its co-plaintiffs, several other Florida-based healthcare providers, argue that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act required the insurance giant to cover the costs.
This is as the cost burden of COVID vaccines shifts from taxpayers to insurance plans, a move experts say is likely to cause premiums to increase. Pair that with depletion of the federal supply of vaccines, and both Medicare and private plans could see for the first time out-of-pocket costs for COVID vaccines, treatments, and tests—and potential disruptions to availability—according to a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-focused nonprofit.
The COVID Subcommittee is expected to work on a host of important pandemic-related subjects, including abusive business practices, economic impact, executive branch policies, and preparedness for future crises. But it’s reasonable to worry that, under its new Republican leadership, the subcommittee may take a sharp turn toward conspiracy theories and policies that favor certain industries over others.