George Soros, Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers all tried to stay in the shadows as long as they could, but at some point, every billionaire is forced to answer for his or her efforts to influence the political process.
That time has arrived for John and Laura Arnold, the billionaire Houston couple who parlayed a fortune trading energy futures at Enron into a vast web of activist organizations and pseudo-academic ventures that criticize everyone from drug companies to teachers and prosecutors.
Their latest play is a Democratic front group called Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW that plans to spend millions on congressional campaigns this year to help Democrats regain control of Congress. Their donations represent some of the Arnolds most overly partisan activity to date and should finally invite the kind of scrutiny reserved for Soros, Mercer and the Kochs – scrutiny the Arnolds have largely avoided.
Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW recently announced its intent to spend more than $1 million to make drug prices a central issue in the upcoming midterm campaigns. The group is run by influential Democrats with ties to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who are carrying the flag for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders heading into the 2020 presidential election.
The Arnolds helped the launch an affiliated organization last year with a $500,000 grant. But this is just a sliver of the tens of millions the Arnolds have spent attacking the pharmaceutical industry through secretly financed university studies and other seemingly pure advocacy groups, including the $20 million they gave to the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, or ICER.
The founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW, David Mitchell, helped start GMMB, Hillary Clinton’s advertising agency and one of the Democratic Party’s biggest media firms. They did ads for Clinton in 2016, Obama in 2008 and 2012 and represent dozens Democratic congressional candidates. Other members of the Patients for Affordable Drugs team include Hillary Clinton’s grassroots director in Ohio, a former political director for Bill Clinton and a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services under Obama.
The Arnolds have been financing surreptitious attacks against the pharmaceutical industry for years, through myriad outside groups, university studies and even some quasi-governmental agencies. However, up to this point, they have largely avoided direct partisan showdowns. By launching Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW and vowing to elevate drug prices as an issue in the 2018 midterms, the Arnolds are spoiling for a more public fight that will expose their shadowy influence on the health care debate.
For years, the Arnolds have been plowing money into nonprofits and universities to finance research that paints biopharmaceutical companies in the most negative light possible. They recently hoodwinked the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions to hold a hearing about research they sponsored. They paid for the report at the center of the hearing and bankrolled two of the three groups that produced witnesses for the session. But, of course, the couple did not disclose their sponsorship of the hearing, neither did the senators who promoted their biased research.
The Arnolds have given roughly $1 billion to various causes over the years, according to disclosures on their own website. Their past giving has not been as overtly political as Soros or the Koch brothers, but that is changing. And their web of influence is almost as vast as those shadowy billionaires who have become emblems of how crooked our politics have become. It’s time they faced some of the same questions about the roots of their secretive meddling.
The real problem with this dark money crusade is that groups backed by the Arnolds are pushing ideas that would stifle innovation and threaten patients’ access to new life-saving drugs. Patients for Affordable Drugs NOW is pushing legislation that would create new risks for patients’ safety and rollback longstanding legal protections for the biopharmaceutical industry. Even two authors of the report reviewed by the Senate’s Health and Education committee warned that some of the recommendations were “excessive” and could damage the country’s health-care system.
Pharmaceutical companies make convenient villains for politicians looking to score points on the campaign trail. But those attacks don’t solve the problem because they ignore the real drivers of health-care spending (doctors and hospitals, pharmacy benefit managers, inefficient reimbursement formulas), and many of the proposals advanced to lower prices would only make things worse. The most innocuous proposals would shift costs to other parts of the market. The most dangerous – and often most-popular with liberals – threaten the supply chain of innovative, life-saving drugs that are helping people live longer, better lives.
We need to have that debate. But first, we should know who is financing these attacks on the pharmaceutical sector. Every knows where drug companies stand. But few people have ever heard of the Arnolds. It’s time for this billionaire couple to step out of the shadows and let people know why they are secretly funneling millions of dollars into this fight.