For the first time since 1992, Democrats in Congress are collecting more political contributions than Republicans from health-industry donors, with some like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy relying on them as the single biggest source of campaign cash.
As the Congressional debate heats up about President Barack Obama's proposed overhaul of the nation's health care system, records show money from doctors, insurers, pharmaceutical firms and hospital and nursing home groups has been flowing increasingly into Democratic coffers - jumping from $36.9 million in the 2006 campaign to $90.7 million in 2008.
In the five-member House delegation from Long Island, all but Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) saw an increase in campaign cash from the health sector during the 2008 campaign. McCarthy (D-Mineola), a former nurse, received $168,925, a jump of more than 50 percent from her 2006 total.
Dominance in Congress helps
Experts say the contributions reflect Democrats' newfound dominance in Congress and can influence health care changes, with money given both to promote as well as limit certain aspects of legislation.
"The Democrats are driving this legislation and they are now in power," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes contributions. "If a person makes a contribution, it often isn't out of the goodness of their heart, but because they want to see something happen or are aligned philosophically with someone in Congress."
Among House Democrats, the average total from the health sector jumped from $74,317 in the 2006 campaign to $118,348 last year. Of the Long Island House members, only McCarthy exceeded last year's national average.
Each of the local House members said the health sector money doesn't affect their decision-making on the health system overhaul proposed by Obama and the Democrats that could include a public option to private HMOs.
"If it did, we certainly would not be pushing a bill in which the managed care industry takes a huge hit and rightfully so," said Israel. Israel came close to the Democrats' national average of health sector-related contributions, but his $114,000 total was slightly lower than the $127,050 he raised in 2006, records show.
In the Senate, Democrats saw their average health-sector contributions soar from $176,748 in 2006 to $724,294 last year, records show. However, Levinthal said the 2008 figure was pushed up by the tallies of then Sens. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were running for president. The presidential bid of Republican Sen. John McCain helped increase the GOP average to $404,321.
However, the coffers of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reflect little giving by the health care industry, which provided him with $1,000 in 2006 and $13,000 last year. But with an upcoming 2010 re-election race, the pace of Schumer's health-related contributions is up considerably this year, with $192,000 so far.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who was appointed in January and faces election next year, so far has collected $102,975 from the sector in the 2010 cycle.
In McCarthy's case, contributions came from many individuals and groups representing radiologists, oral surgeons, nurses, emergency room physicians and plastic surgeons.
In the current health system overhaul bill passed by the House, McCarthy pushed to increase the number of nurses in medicine and improve educational opportunities for those interested in a nursing career, said spokesman Ray Zaccaro.
"As a nurse for over 30 years, she has a deep background in the intricacies of the health care system, which she has used to shape legislation that has made our communities safer and healthier," said Zaccaro. "The congresswoman is proud to have earned the support of many organizations and individuals within the health-care community."
Last year, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) saw his health-care sector political contributions rise by about 35 percent - from $71,524 in 2006 to $96,000 in 2008.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has collected the least in health-industry money since 2006, but that too shot up from $54,350 in 2006 to $84,550 last year.
Even the sole Republican, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), saw his health sector contributions rise 25 percent from 2006 to last year. The amount of campaign cash from doctors and health-related professionals doubled, although the amount from hospital and nursing home declined from 2006's campaign to last year.