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Top Obamacare Critic's Op-Eds Drafted by PR Firm That Reps Drug, Health Care Clients

Meet the magic PR elves fueling Sally Pipes' prolific anti-health-care-reform punditry.

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

PRI has a track record of promoting the positions of its corporate donors, which have included the Walton Family Foundation, an extension of the Walmart empire, which Pipes defended in a number of op-eds after the company was sued in a massive sex discrimination suit; the tobacco industry, whose tort reform agenda PRI has heavily promoted; and PhRMA, the national lobbying association for the pharmaceutical industry, whose positions it has parroted on everything from the evils of filmmaker Michael Moore to Medicare drug price controls.

The think tank has received funding from ExxonMobil, which has bankrolled dubious research attempting to debunk climate change. (Pipes declared in 1998 that global warming is simply a "hobgoblin" cooked up by the Clinton administration's EPA.) The think tank also relies on donations from conservative foundations, including those of the Scaife and Koch families.

Beyond its relationship with Keybridge, PRI has had ties to other corporate PR firms in the past. Peter Pitts, a onetime PRI senior fellow for health care research, ran an offshoot of the think tank called the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, while simultaneously working for a PR firm that represented the pharmaceutical industry. During the health care reform debate, and while still supposedly running CMPI, Pitts, a former FDA official, took the helm of the health care division at the international PR giant Porter Novelli, which represents a host of drug companies.

Pipes has run PRI since 1991, coming to the organization from the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank that's been fighting Canada's national health care system almost since it was created in the 1970s. She has little in the way of health care policy credentials. Pipes earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of British Columbia, and has virtually no hefty academic research to her name, a point driven home by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) when Pipes testified at a 2009 hearing on the Affordable Care Act.

After highlighting her lack of academic credentials, Braley asked Pipes whether she'd ever published any work in a peer-reviewed medical or health care policy journal. Pipes replied that she'd been published in Health Affairs. However, she neglected to mention that her contribution to the journal had been a non-peer-reviewed letter to the editor, a fact later unearthed by ThinkProgress. Pipes' main selling point as a health care reform critic is her Canadian pedigree. She bills herself as a refugee from socialized medicine, and many of her op-eds and speeches lambasting Obamacare draw on her experience in Canada.

What Pipes lacks in academic credentials she makes up for in connections. Pipes served as a health care adviser to Rudy Giuliani during his 2008 presidential run and on Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team when he became governor of California in 2003. The introductions to her books have been written by former presidential candidate and billionaire Steve Forbes and famed conservative economists Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer.

At PRI, Pipes is handsomely compensated for her work. According to the think tank's most recent tax filings for tax year 2010 (filed in late 2011), she earned more than $500,000, and claimed to work 80 hours a week. Her salary is so substantial that she ranked No. 11 on the San Francisco Business Times' list of highest paid nonprofit CEOs in the San Francisco area.

Even in the conservative think tank world, Pipes is notable for her hefty compensation. For example, the much larger and better-known American Enterprise Institute, which has an annual income of more than $30 million annually, pays its president, Arthur Brooks, about the same salary as Pipes. But, at PRI, Pipes' salary accounts for nearly 13 percent of the organization's annual budget. Keybridge's work for PRI—largely on Pipes' behalf—ate up another 10 percent of the group's budget in 2010.

Former staffers question whether the money PRI is shelling out to Keybridge is really benefiting the nonprofit, or simply promoting Pipes herself. And they wonder why the think tank has continued to spend hefty sums on an outside PR firm even as the organization experienced significant financial hardships. In 2010, the organization overspent its budget by more than $1 million, and last August it laid off about six people, a third of the staff, and several other staffers and contract research fellows have left and have not been replaced. As PRI underwent some serious belt tightening last year, according to former employees, the one thing that didn't get eliminated were the services of Keybridge.

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