Who's Funding the Journalists Drilling Into the Dark Corners of America's Healthcare System?

Since the creation of the investigative reporting group ProPublica in 2007, bankrolled by philanthropists Herb and Marion Sandler, there's been a surge in giving for journalism that digs into the shadowy corners of American life. 

Among the organizations that have emerged in the past decade is Kaiser Health News, which was created in 2009 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, an operating foundation that's been around in its present form since the early 1990s. The goal was to provide "in-depth coverage of today’s ever more complex health issues and developments," and KHN has been doing exactly that. Along the way, it's diversified its funding base and has lately pulled in grants from such foundations as Annie E. Casey, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and several California health foundations.

As well, KHN has received support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in the form of a three-year grant specifically for "independent reporting on pharmaceutical drug development and pricing." The $1 million grant runs through 2018. As we've reported, the Arnold Foundation is keen to find ways to reduce drug prices. 

Reporting by KHN on this front has yielded some impressive results, offering up a reminder of the dividends deriving from funding investigative journalism. Most notably, reporters on KHN's pharmacy-industry beat followed the money from a pharmaceutical lobbying group, which led them to a nonprofit consumer alliance.

Kaiser reporters spent two weeks tracking contributions from a giant pharma lobbying organization to members of the nonprofit Partnership for Safe Medicine, which calls itself a public health group "committed to the safety of prescription drugs" and "protecting consumers against counterfeit, substandard or otherwise unsafe medicines."

The group's message for consumers and policymakers is that medicines from outside the U.S. are unsafe because of counterfeiting and criminal activity, and "together we can take action to avoid them." 

Among other things, the Partnership for Safe Medicines is a vocal critic of affordable drug legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders. The bill aims to create more price competition for prescription drugs by importing Canadian pharmaceuticals. 

Kaiser's reporters examined the contributions from the pharma lobby, learning that one-third of the members in the partnership are funded by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America or belong to an organization that receives PhRMA money.

The partnership told Kaiser's reporters that member dues paid for its television commercial and newspaper print ads against lifting a ban on Canadian drug imports. But many of those members were found to have no websites or online presence to promote their missions or existence. One of the nonprofits in the partnership was a lone individual in Florida. Plus, the staff member who recruited nonprofits to join the Partnership for Safe Medicines now works for the PhMRA lobbying organization.

The Kaiser report seems to confirm suspicions about the connection between Big Pharma's lobby and patient advocacy groups—some of which work against initiatives to lower drug prices for U.S. patients.

Arnold's funding of KHN is part of a larger set of grantmaking around prescription drug issues. In addition to giving millions for new research in this area, the foundation recently gave a $500,000 gift to a nonprofit advocacy group called Patients for Affordable Drugs. In reporting the gift, we noted that this organization is unusual in that it has vowed not to accept any money from pharmaceutical sources. 

In short, in the past year, the Arnold Foundation has not only bankrolled an independent new advocacy voice on prescription drugs, it funded reporting that unmasked a bogus group that's been fronting for Big Pharma.

Score one for the public interest. 

It's worth mentioning, before closing, that there are a few other notable funders who give to healthcare journalism. For example, the California Health Care Foundation supports the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. The foundation "informs policymakers and industry leaders" to create a more patient-centered care system, and has given $7 million toward that mission to USC's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. CHCF also funded 11 working journalists with six-month fellowships at the USC school to elevate health reporting. 

Of course, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given millions to support reporting on healthcare issues. While NPR has been the main beneficiary of this giving, RWJF has also given to local public radio affiliates. We reported a while back on a big grant to WNYC for health reporting. In addition, the foundation has given to WHYY to promote a culture of health in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Finally, RWJF has given a string of big grants to support investigative journalism at ProPublica, totaling over $2 million since 2015. ProPublica has been a leader in reporting that digs into America's healthcare system. In fact, it's done so much groundbreaking work in this area that it recently launched an interactive web app to make data from its investigations more accessible.