The Urban Institute, Charles Blahous, and the Koch Brothers on Medicare-for-All

by Alison Hartson and Jessica Cresseveur, TYT Army

The Urban Institute conducted research on Medicare-for-All Single-Payer that has been cited throughout mainstream media as evidence against the healthcare policy. CNN states: “The left-leaning Urban Institute estimated […] an additional $32 trillion in new federal spending.” This is a misrepresentation because it fails to account for the fact that the additional spending by the federal government will replace current healthcare costs. This includes spending by households, businesses, and state and local governments. Every other recent study estimated that Medicare-for-All Single-Payer will save at least $2 trillion for the entire country, and it is better for business and workers in both the public and private sectors. Yet, NPR, Vox, Washington Post, NBC, and ABC, among others, also cite the Urban Institute’s study.

Although the media often refers to the Urban Institute as “left-leaning,” it is important to note that this term is heavily misleading. A deep dive into the makeup and donor list of this organization shows a politically diverse, but largely pro-corporate structure that includes ties to private insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the Koch Brothers, and the U.S. government.

It is extremely likely that this study will be referenced in tomorrow’s congressional hearing on Medicare-for-All, so here’s what you need to know.

While the Urban Institute includes statements of independence in its studies, their Leadership, Life Trustees, and Fellows have histories with organizations that include:

  • American Enterprise Institute, funded in part by the Koch brothers and DonorsTrust – a “donor-advised fund” that is also funded by the Koch brothers and provides an opportunity for other donors to cloak themselves from the public (David H. Koch also sits on AEI’s National Council)
  • Eli Lilly and Gilead Sciences, both major pharmaceutical companies
  • Aetna health insurance
  • Berkshire Hathaway, which formed a new insurance company with Urban Institute donor JP Morgan Chase
  • Hudson Institute and Debt Reduction Task Force, both pro-austerity organizations supporting spending cuts and tax increases
  • Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which supports cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose board of directors contains a number of former politicians and executives whose best interests run counter to Medicare-for-All

The Urban Institute’s funding sources also raise a number of red flags regarding its objectivity towards Medicare-for-All and single-payer healthcare in general. Among Urban Institute’s donors are:

  • Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which supports cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security
  • AARP, which has advocated against single-payer healthcare
  • Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, many of whose funders stand to lose money if the 2019 Medicare-for-All Bills were to pass and many of whose board members are vocal opponents of single-payer healthcare
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, whose parent corporation is a member of the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future, a coalition campaigning against Medicare-for-All
  • Center for American Progress, which backs “Medicare Extra for All,” an ACA-like program with a public option that allows private insurance companies to remain intact
  • Erskine Bowles, Urban Institute trustee and co-author of the Simpson-Bowles Report of 2013, which recommends cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to reduce the federal deficit
  • U.S. federal government at 42.2% for a total of $39.6 million (2016)

The Urban Institute’s connection to right-wing institutions funded by the likes of the Koch brothers extends to a well-known critic of Medicare-for-All, Charles Blahous, who is scheduled to testify at tomorrow’s Medicare-for-All Congressional hearing.

Blahous is a senior strategist at the Koch brothers funded Mercatus Center, and a former lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) with 182 board members representing corporations that include Koch Companies Public Sector, Allergan Pharmaceutical, and UnitedHealth Group Incorporated. He has also written several studies for the Manhattan Institute, conducted research for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), was a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and is also a visiting fellow for the Hoover Institution where he has written two publications. Every one of these institutions is funded by right-wing foundations and/or individuals, including the Koch brothers.

Additionally, Blahous has conducted research for the Wilson Center, where Betsy Devos and Mike Pompeo are two of their notable members. While the Wilson Center contributions are primarily from gifts and grants, a portion of their funding is provided by Congress.

Blahous also served on the The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings, and was nominated to temporarily fill a vacant position in 2017 as a trustee. The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington D.C. think tank primarily funded by corporations and foundations that include conflicts of interest in regards to Medicare-for-All Single-Payer. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, the BPC is yet another major donor to the Urban Institute, and the two companies share several of the same donors or related institutions, including Kaiser, BlueCross BlueShield, and Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

The Urban Institute advertises itself as providing unbiased research to inform policy, yet this web of pro-corporate, profit-driven donors sheds light on the conflict of interests that fuel the bias of its studies. Placed in the context of these donors, the public must question Urban Institute’s statement that its research is guided by “evidence, [as opposed to] ideology.”

Clearly the Urban Institute and Blahous have complex ties to profit driven entities who rely on privatized healthcare. As the public observe these hearings and the continued debate around Medicare-for-All, it is important to navigate this tangled web that connects Urban Institute and Blahous to their benefactors and understand where biases and allegiances lie. Despite overwhelming public support for Medicare-for-All Single-Payer and its potential to save Americans trillions in healthcare costs, the beneficiaries of the status quo will surely frame the debate around their beloved yet entangled “free market” healthcare system.

Contributor: Marjorie St. Clair
Editors: Arun Ravendhran, Andrea Witte, and Liz Griffith

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Liz

    Incredibly well researched article! Also, very disturbing how deep the ties go to keep privatized heath insurance in business.

  2. Michael

    Great article that clearly lays out what’s wrong with our system. If you don’t have a full time job dedicated to knowing how and where to find the money that controls policy, you might fall for the manipulation of politicians and these hearings to that serve to shield corruption.

    1. Alison Hartson

      Glad you find this useful!

  3. Eric Naumburg

    The Urban Institute study did not evaluate a single-payer system; they picked their own system. The study assumed that private insurers would still be in the system and thus they were modeling a multi-payer system. This article by the founders of Physicians for a National Health Program, Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein, goes into detail about the weaknesses of the Urban Institute study.

    1. Alison Hartson

      Thank you for your feedback. We’ll take a look at this.

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