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Healthcare lobby set for record spending this year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It’s not just spending on U.S. healthcare that is breaking records. Drugmakers, insurers and industry groups are on track to spend an all-time high of more than $500 million this year to influence Congress’ revamp of the healthcare system.

Lobbyists for the healthcare sector will likely smash previous spending records by tens of millions of dollars this year as Democratic lawmakers try to reshape the industry by expanding coverage and shaving costs.

“If current trends continue, the health sector is likely to spend more than a half-billion dollars on lobbying in 2009,” said The New England Journal of Medicine’s Dr. Robert Steinbrook.

As Congress makes a final push for a bill to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare system that fuels one-sixth of the U.S. economy, health companies and industry groups are trying to shape the outcome.

The Senate is headed for a test vote on Saturday that will determine if it can proceed to three weeks of floor debate followed by a final vote on an $849 billion, 10-year bill. The House of Representatives has already approved its $1 trillion version of healthcare reform.

Differences between the two bills would have to be reconciled in a long negotiation process and lobbyists have been jockeying for time with members of Congress and their staff.

Lawmakers, especially Democratic Senators up for re-election next year, have seen a flood of campaign donations from hospitals, device makers and others with billions at stake.

$400 MILLION IN NINE MONTHS

The healthcare sector spent $486 million on lobbying last year and nearly $400 million through September of this year, according to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics.

For drugmakers, always among the top spenders in Washington, reform could mean higher sales because more Americans will have insurance coverage to pay for medications.

Drug companies like Pfizer Inc, Merck & Co Inc and others spent $237 million on lobbying in 2008 which they nearly surpassed in nine months to end-September.

“They’re on pace to obliterate their totals ... due to health reform undoubtedly,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents big drugmakers, is on track to spend more than $30 million this year, Levinthal said.

“It should come as no surprise to anyone that we stepped up our efforts this year,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the group which backs most of the Democrats’ measures and cemented a $80 billion, 10-year deal of rebates and discounts to help pay for it.

“We have a lot at stake right now. We’re talking about fundamentally changing our healthcare system,” said Johnson.

Insurers such as UnitedHealth Group Inc and WellPoint Inc also ramped up spending to oppose Democrats’ plan for a public insurance option that could rival private plans. Insurers along with other health service companies spent $52.8 million on lobbying so far this year after spending $63.1 million in all of 2008.

“In all cases, these would be record annual expenditures,” said the New England Journal of Medicine’s Steinbrook.

The U.S. healthcare sector has generally favored Republican candidates in doling out political campaign cash.

That trend changed in the 2008 election that ushered Democrat Barack Obama into the White House with his party controlling the House and the Senate.

The industry gave 54 percent of its political contributions to Democrats in the 2008 cycle, up from 37 percent just two years earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For the cycle under way ahead of next year’s mid-term elections, 59 percent has gone to Democrats.

“They’re trying to influence the people who have the power,” said Josh Israel, a campaign finance expert at the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

Editing by Chris Wilson

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