U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a vocal critic of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act and its glitch-stricken website, HealthCare.gov, repeatedly calling for repeal of the law "root and branch."
"At this point, senators from both parties can agree: HealthCare.gov is a rolling disaster. Every day seems to bring more, newer comic calamity," McConnell, R-Ky., said Oct. 29 in a Senate floor speech. "The only thing the website seems to be good for right now is creating punch lines for late-night comedians."
However, since 2011, McConnell has accepted more than $75,000 in political donations from health care giant UnitedHealth Group, which owns the technology company that helped build and launch HealthCare.gov for a reported $155 million and now is responsible for fixing it.
The donations came from UnitedHealth's political action committee and five of its top executives; they went to McConnell's 2014 re-election campaign and two fundraising committees that he oversees, the Bluegrass Committee and the McConnell-Cornyn Leadership Victory Committee.
UnitedHealth also co-hosted a $1,000-per-person fundraising dinner for McConnell's campaign last December in Washington, D.C. And the company, based in Minnetonka, Minn., retains former McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper as a Washington lobbyist to work on its behalf in Congress on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Senate records show.
UnitedHealth, which tends to favor incumbent Democrats and Republicans as it gives more than $1 million in political donations during a typical two-year election cycle, has expressed optimism about the health care law.
"UnitedHealth Group strongly supports making high-quality health care accessible and affordable for everyone," it stated in a news release last year.
Josh Holmes, a McConnell aide on loan to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thursday there is no indication that UnitedHealth's donations have weakened McConnell's opposition to the health law.
Two conservative groups, however, said UnitedHealth's support of McConnell is further evidence that his only true ideology is power. They already have criticized McConnell for not fully supporting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others who fight to defund the health care law, which they call Obamacare.
"Mitch McConnell gets money from lots of corporations for many different reasons, but his close ties to this one makes it unique," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has endorsed Louisville businessman Matt Bevin over McConnell in the Republican primary next May.
"This could explain why Mitch McConnell has been so reluctant to oppose funding for the implementation of Obamacare. He and his closest allies apparently have a financial interest in seeing it go forward," Hoskins said.
Another conservative critic, Daniel Horowitz, policy director at the Madison Project, said "the entire McConnell web," including his corporate donors and aides-turned-lobbyists, sees a chance to make money off Obamacare, so McConnell won't stand in the law's way.
"McConnell isn't a liberal, a conservative or a moderate," said Horowitz, whose group also has endorsed Bevin. "His ideology is power. That's all he cares about."
Holmes noted that UnitedHealth donates to many politicians, including $5,000 last year to Ted Cruz and $2,000 to the leadership committee of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., both of whom are prominent foes of the Affordable Care Act.
"Matt Bevin is going to need more than a fake MIT diploma to dupe people into believing that the most prominent opponents of Obamacare, like Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, are not committed to the cause because they receive political support from UnitedHealth," Holmes said. "Clearly, everyone knows where they stand on getting this awful law off the books."
McConnell has repeatedly criticized likely Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes in recent days for refusing to call for repeal of the health care law.
Grimes, who has not reported receiving any donations from UnitedHealth's political action committee since entering the race in July, has praised portions of the law while calling for changes and delays to some of its requirements.
UnitedHealth's Washington-based vice president for government affairs, Daniel Keniry, who oversees the company's political donations and has personally given $7,500 to McConnell's committees since 2011, did not return repeated calls seeking comment Thursday. Nor did a corporate spokesman at the company's Minnesota headquarters.
UnitedHealth, best known for its health insurance division, owns Quality Software Services Inc., which helped build and launch HealthCare.gov along with another private contractor, CGI Federal of Fairfax, Va. Both companies faced sharp criticism in congressional hearings after the website failed to successfully launch in October. CGI has blamed QSSI for providing the data services hub that caused the first "log jam" on the site.
"We absolutely take accountability for those first days when our tool was part of the issue in terms of being able to handle all of the unexpected volume. And we absolutely will take accountability for helping in any way we can to help this project go forward," Andrew Slavitt, a senior QSSI executive, testified Oct. 24 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Piper, who left McConnell's office in early 2011 for the Washington lobbying firm of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, also did not return repeated calls seeking comment Thursday. Piper has given $7,000 to McConnell's campaign and a related committee, McConnell Victory Kentucky, since 2011.
Senate records show that Piper has several other clients who pay him for his assistance in implementing the Affordable Care Act, including the Federation of American Hospitals. The FAH has praised the health care law for making life easier for patients. The group's political action committee has given a total of $15,000 since 2011 to McConnell's campaign and to his Bluegrass Committee.