The Associated Press
McALLEN, Texas (AP) - A doctor-owned hospital in Edinburg, 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, has been giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to congressional campaign committees to head off legislation regulating its ownership.
Doctors and others affiliated with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance raised nearly $500,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at a reception at the Texas home of a wealthy developer and hospital board member in March, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Financial disclosure records show the hospital has been one of the largest sources of campaign contributions to Senate Democrats this year and has raised large sums to fight past attempts to restrict doctors' ownership of hospitals.
At the center of the effort is Alonzo Cantu, a hospital founder and board member whose construction company built the facility. Cantu hosted the March fundraiser, as well as another in September 2007 that raised at least $800,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Cantu, the son of Mexican immigrants, has been a prolific fundraiser for Democrats including Bill and Hillary Clinton.
So far, the intense lobbying seems to be working. Doctor-owned hospitals, which have been blamed for helping drive up health care costs, have avoided restriction in recent discussion about health care reform.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, said doctor-owned hospitals had helped kill his proposal to limit doctor ownership of any hospital to 40 percent.
"Particularly led by these guys in Texas, these guys who have been raising tons of money for contributions," Stark said. "I am sure that some of my colleagues have been willing to hear them out."
Bills passed by two House committees would prevent new doctor-owned hospitals from opening, but let existing hospitals continue to operate.
Doctors Hospital at Renaissance has grown rapidly, expanding to 503 beds from 30 in six years. Cantu and other advocates have said it provides top-shelf care and the latest equipment in a region where patients previously had to drive to San Antonio and Houston for many procedures.
The hospital was featured in a June article by The New Yorker that singled the area out for some of the highest health care costs in the country. Hospital officials disputed the article and its implication that the doctors' profit motive led them to order an excessive number of tests and procedures.
Cantu, whose $30,400 was the largest contributions to Senate Democrats from the area, is unapologetic about the hospital's political efforts.
"We've always been ignored by the Republicans because we're the blue section of the state and the Democrats have taken us for granted," he said. "What do politicians listen to? Typically it's money and votes."
Delegations from McAllen have visited legislators on Capitol Hill at least three times in the past two months, making their case that they are not catering to patients with private insurance. Eighty-eight percent of Doctors Hospital's patients are on public insurance or uninsured.
"Every chairman of a committee that has influence over them had meetings with them," said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, whose district includes the hospital and who set up some of the Capitol Hill meetings.
Hospital officials downplayed their influence.
"I can't say we had a direct impact," said Susan Turley, chief financial officer for Doctors Hospital. "I think every physician-owned hospital was talking to their congressmen."
President Barack Obama has referenced the area's health care disparities highlighted in The New Yorker article in his push for reform, frustrating some of the hospital's advocates, including Cantu who gave $2,300 to his presidential campaign.
"What's so upsetting," Cantu said, "is that to make his case he threw McAllen under the bus."
Information from The New York Times: www.nytimes.com