Sanders calls on Democratic rivals to reject drug, insurance industry donations

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders for years has been among the sharpest critics of pharma, and the health industry has joined forces to beat back Medicare for All and other proposals to expand government health insurance. | David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday pledged to refuse donations from health insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists and executives, as he challenged his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination to do the same.

Sanders made the announcement hours before he delivers a speech defending “Medicare for All,” a plan that would effectively eliminate private health insurance and guarantee government coverage for everyone. He said he will not not knowingly accept money from a list of companies that belong to leading lobbying groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and PhRMA. He will make an exception for donations received from the “rank-and-file workers” of these companies, which include corporations — like Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente and Pfizer — that collectively employ several million people.

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“You can’t change a corrupt system by taking its money,” Sanders plans to say Wednesday, according to prepared remarks shared with reporters. “If we are going to break the stranglehold of corporate interests over the health care needs of the American people, we have got to confront a Washington culture that has let this go on for far too long.”

Sanders, who is among the top-tier candidates in the Democratic race, pointed to data that the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have spent more than $330 million on lobbying in the past two decades.

His pledge could put pressure on former Vice President Joe Biden, who in April held a fundraiser co-hosted by a health insurance executive, just hours after the front-runner launched his presidential campaign

Other Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to refuse money from fossil fuel interests, and Sanders is not the first to say he’s rejecting some health care industry donations. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in 2017 said he would “pause” donations from the pharmaceutical industry, which has a large presence in New Jersey and had contributed to his earlier campaigns.

But many of Sanders’ rivals have taken money from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) held a fundraiser in March hosted by a Pfizer executive. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are among the candidates who have taken drug industry donations in previous campaigns.

Sanders for years has been among the sharpest critics of pharma, and the health industry has joined forces to beat back Medicare for All and other proposals to expand government health insurance. A recent report by Public Citizen found that lobbying against Medicare for All in Congress surged in the first quarter of 2019, overwhelmingly by organizations like PhRMA, AHIP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — all of which oppose Sanders’ plan.