On Monday at the CNN-Tea Party Republican presidential debate, Michele Bachmann pounced on the fact that Rick Perry signed an executive order in 2007 mandating all girls in his state be vaccinated against HPV. She was accusing the Texas governor of crony capitalism.
Bachmann had found the issue that would differentiate her from the man who stole her thunder. The Congresswoman spent the next few days slamming Perry and the HPV vaccine in interviews—and even in her fundraising email immediately following the debate's conclusion. It's a move that morphs a one-time sideshow amusement and general thorn in the side of Democrats (and thinking human beings) into a genuine public health threat.
The brunt of Bachmann's crony capitalism charge is that Governor Perry mandated the use of a drug by a pharmaceutical company—Merck—that had also donated to his campaign to the tune of $28,500.
Meanwhile, Bachman has taken somewhere north of $140,000 from pharmaceutical companies.
Those donors include Abbott Labs, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Novartis, Eli Lilly and Bayer. Yet, not a dollar of all that pharma money, from such a wide range of the world's largest drugmakers, came from Merck. Might Bachmann be going after Merck on behalf of that company's competitors who also happen to be Bachmann donors?
But really, if Bachmann is carrying water, it's likely not for her pharmaceutical patrons, but her insurance ones. Over the years, Bachmann has taken in huge donations from the insurance industry, including big names such as Allstate, American Family, Aetna and AFLAC, as well as umbrella organizations like the National Association of Health Underwriters and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. There are also several professional insurance association and agent PACs. In the 2009-10 cycle, "insurance" was the largest single industry donor to the Congresswoman. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, Bachmann ranked eighth in total fundraising receipts from insurers.
Now, if Bachmann likes a good follow-the-money insinuation, she might like the hypothetical that she is only going after Perry's Gardasil decision because, as a covered treatment, such an order would cost insurers for every injection (a full vaccination requires three shots, and they cost about $120 each). Perry worked to secure about $40 million from the state to match about that same amount from the feds to cover the uninsured and those on state health assistance.
(A note on the subject of conflicts of interest: Quaint by comparison is that the Our Country Deserves Better PAC (better known as the Tea Party Express), the co-sponsors of the debate, donated to only one candidate on stage Monday night: Michele Bachmann. That this was not disclosed is, in this day and age, a minor point, but one that should be flung in with the rest of CNN's reputation as its spirals around the toilet bowl.)
It would be a relief to nail Bachmann as a crony capitalist. But worse and far more likely is that she's just a political opportunist who sees going after Gardasil as a fast-track to headlines about America's virgin daughters threatened with the penetration of a forced injection—with her as a protector of those virgins.
After the debate, Bachmann told Anderson Cooper that immediately after the event she had been approached by a mother. Bachmann looked right into the camera and said, "She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter."
If Bachmann did not just make that whole story up, then she repeated a lie that she didn't care to elaborate upon. In the hours after her statement, health professionals and citizens alike voiced outrage at her unfounded claim. Two separate Minnesota heath researchers offered a combined $11,000 bounty on any proof of the connection.
But what about the opposition to the mandate voiced by the Texas Medical Association that so many keep mentioning? That was for tax purposes, not treatment ones, as doctors worried they would be forced to eat the costs of administration as a "pass-through" treatment where they could bill for the injection itself, but not the time spent giving it.
What would really take Bachmann's claim to the next level would be a full-on slander lawsuit from Merck. Bachmann's irresponsible, if not manufactured, claim that HPV vaccination creates "mental retardation" presents a genuine threat to Merck's bottom line—and at least a few of the jobs of their 94,000 employees, their contribution to being an "engine of the economy."
Merck's statement on the issue, with the clinical title "Merck Statement on GARDASIL®," was so sanitary it did not even mention Bachmann's name. In the battle for news worthiness, Merck's effort has all the pop of the brochure that your pharmacist staples to prescription bags at pick-up.
Asked for comment on the possibility of such an action, a spokesman for Merck referred me to the statement, saying only that right now Merck's "priority is to make sure there is accurate information about Gardasil available to the public."
Of course, the real losers here are women who will suffer horribly and die from cervical cancer.
A lesser loser, but a loser nonetheless, is Anita Perry, the wife Rick Perry threw under the bus during the debate when he spun his HPV vaccination mandate as "a mistake." (Perry has called the mandate a mistake before, but never on quite such a national stage.)
Anita Perry has a BA and an MS in nursing. In addition to her personal medical experience, her father was a doctor. She has been a champion of women's health. By accounts, she is the true driver behind the Gardasil mandate. For years as Texas' First Lady, Perry has made cancer a particular focus, attending event after event for cancer research, awareness and fundraising.
During the passage of the vaccine bill, Anita Perry headed up a sexual assault organization, which may have pushed her further toward an understanding of the value of HPV immunity.
Emails from a FOIA request by Politico show that Rick Perry was hardly a factor in the vaccine bill and instead forwarded information to Anita, who responded by writing, "[Dallas Republican] Tammy Cotten Hartnett told me at lunch today that she would help you with some conservative groups."
Putting a human face on Perry's order was 31-year-old teacher Heather Burcham who, while dying of cervical cancer, lobbied heavily for the mandate and became a health advocacy partner of Perry's in the run-up to 2007. Burcham said before her death, "I don't want my life to have no purpose whatsoever, and if I can help spread the word about cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine, then I haven't lived in vain."
The limp governor, who was tough enough to shoot a coyote but did not have the cojones to veto the bill repealing his HPV order, is now groveling in the face of outrage from mouth-breathing moralists. It's a damn shame, because if Perry was genuinely the bold leader he's been sold as, he would have just reissued his statements on the matter from 2007:
I have never seen so much misinformation spread about a vital public health issue: whether it is the effectiveness of the vaccine, the impact of the order on parents’ decision-making authority, or the impact this will have on the behavior of young women.
But the fact remains: my order always has been and always will be about protecting women’s health…. Those legislators who claim this is about their right to determine public policy have succeeded in overturning my order. But if they care about succeeding in stopping the spread of the second most deadly cancer among women, and not just asserting their power, then they will turn around and pass legislation to make access to the HPV vaccine as widely available as possible.
Instead, they have sent me a bill that will ensure three-quarters of our young women will be susceptible to a virus that not only kills hundreds each year, but causes great discomfort and harm to thousands more. Instead of vaccinating close to 95 percent of our young women, and virtually eliminating the spread of the most common STD in America, they have relegated the lives of our young women to social Darwinism, where only those who can afford it or those who know about the virtues of it will get access to the HPV vaccine.
In fact, this legislature has not only overturned an order that could save women’s lives, but they put rider language in the budget that prevents the state from funding vaccines for low-income women if it is mandated by the commission.
This is shameful.
Yes, yes it is. I wonder how Perry's mother, currently suffering from cancer, feels about his change of heart?
There is some hope though that Bachmann and her paranoid anti-vaccine comrades are on their way to the dustbin of history.
A gynecologist I spoke with said that she is increasingly seeing young women just out of high school come into her office and voluntarily ask for the HPV vaccine. Better yet, the physician said that she often sees a noticeable friend effect, where after one women is inoculated, suddenly her circle of fiends all make similar appointments, mentioning that they heard through the first.
She adds, largely lost in the brouhaha, that Gardasil has been approved for boys.
The acceptance of HPV vaccination seems to be a trend across the immunization spectrum. The CDC's 2010 National Immunization Survey found that 90% of American children aged 19- to 35-months are receiving recommended vaccines. It's a note of good news, as the new data represent an increase after a number of years of falling rates—peaking in 2009. For example, the MMR vaccination rate rose to 91.5% from 90% in 2009.
And the better news is that America may not need a vaccination against Michele Bachmann, as she's proving to be what doctors call "self-limiting."
UPDATE 9/16 PM: This is how a once-promising campaign flames out, not in spectacular fashion with an orchestral showdown and a cloud of smoke, but with grainy cellphone video, musty fabric-covered wall dividers and a fern.
After a day spent reading her press—which included criticism from her own former campaign manager and current consultant, Ed Rollins—the campaign knew its goose was cooked. Late in the afternoon, Bachmann's Youtube channel posted a video of Bachmann begging for her credibility, shot at the undisclosed location where she is being held hostage by public opinion.
Even her hair appears to have given up. Her last hope? "Perrycare."
The email to supporters that mirrored the video statement was a mess, featuring grammatical errors and a complete abandonment of the "little girls" language in favor of "our young women." What was more of a sign than anything though, for the first time in months of these emails, Bachmann did not directly ask for money.
So Bachmann's campaign ends not with a whimper, but with a "Perrycare."
Bachmann still plans to join the next debate on Sept, 22, which really will be something special.