Oregon’s senior care industry is well-known in state politics for its deep pockets and willingness to financially back candidates at every level of government.
As the extent of COVID-19 cases and deaths at nursing homes receives more attention, the industry’s political largesse is also attracting scrutiny. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, on Tuesday disclosed a March 20 $20,000 gift to one of her political action committees from nursing home company Avamere Health Services. The contribution was first reported by Willamette Week.
That was a substantial political contribution even in Oregon’s no-limits campaign finance system. But it was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the senior care industry’s spending on state politics.
Avamere is just one member of the industry group Oregon Health Care Association. Its political action committee has collectively spent nearly $1.4 million on Democratic and Republican political candidates and legislative caucus PACs since 2016, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of state campaign finance data. The group also reported spending more than $780,000 on lobbying to kill or pass policy and spending bills before the Oregon Legislature from 2016 to present.
A spokesman for Avamere declined to comment Friday afternoon. Rosie Ward, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Care Association, wrote in an email that the industry supports transparency around COVID-19 infections and deaths at the facilities and neither its lobbyists nor its members have spoken with the governor or her administration “about restricting the disclosure of information or data regarding COVID-19 cases in long term care settings.”
“From day one, we have been strong advocates in encouraging DHS to collect and share contextual data about long term care and COVID-19 with the public,” Ward wrote. “Currently, over 98% of providers do not have a positive resident case in their facility.”
Despite early evidence older people are particularly at-risk from COVID-19 and a notorious multiple-fatality outbreak at a suburban Seattle care facility in February and March, Oregon did not release data about positive coronavirus tests and related deaths in Oregon nursing homes until the second week in April. It did so only after The Oregonian/OregonLive repeatedly requested the information and had already independently confirmed outbreaks at some of the facilities.
So far, a roughly half of COVID-19 deaths in Oregon have been among residents of long-term care facilities.
Additionally, the state’s long-term care ombudsman, Fred Steele, appears to have faced repercussions after he shared the state’s internal coronavirus figures with a reporter from The Oregonian/OregonLive. A state official cut off Steele’s easy access to the twice-a-day updates, the news organization reported.
The governor is the largest recipient by a long stretch of the Oregon Health Care Association’s political cash from 2016 to present, a time period that spans the last two general elections and part of the 2020 cycle. Brown’s political action committee took more than $190,000 from the nursing home industry group, according to state data.
A political action committee called the Common Good Fund, which helped defeat conservative ballot initiatives and boosted Brown’s reelection campaign in 2018, received $42,000 from the nursing home group. And the Health Care Association gave $50,000 to the Democratic Governors Association during the 2018 election cycle, when the national group spent $2.2 million on Brown’s reelection campaign, according to state campaign finance records.
Thomas Wheatley, a political consultant with the governor’s political action committee who also worked on her reelection campaign, wrote in an email that Avamere pledged the $20,000 contribution to Brown last fall. He said the governor, a Democrat, “ceased political fundraising activities on the day the first COVID-19 presumptive positive case was announced. That was Feb. 28.”
Regarding Brown’s position as the top recipient of nursing home industry political money, Wheatley said it made sense given she is the state’s top elected official and won “two statewide elections back to back.”
“Contributions to her political committee have zero bearing on policy decisions,” Wheatley said.
As The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last year, Brown has continued to amass large amounts of cash in her two political action committees even though she cannot run again in 2022. The governor has previously declined to provide any specifics about her plans to use the money. But Wheatley wrote this week that the governor will use the money “to communicate directly with the public, to support her priorities on the ballot and to support progressive candidates who share her values.”
In the Legislature, candidates and caucus PACs of both parties have accepted contributions from the senior care industry. Democrats, who hold the most power with majorities in the Legislature and occupy four of the give statewide elected offices, have received the most campaign cash.
A lack of state government transparency about the wellbeing of people living in Oregon’s senior care facilities is not new. In 2017, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found the state omitted thousands of confirmed cases of shoddy care and elder abuse at the facilities from a public database that many families relied upon to find quality homes for their loved ones.