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Kent Thiry: Democracy Defender or Real-Life Monopoly Man?

Kent Thiry: Democracy Defender or Real-Life Monopoly Man?


“800-pound gorilla”

Kent Thiry is a wealthy Coloradan looking to fundamentally change the way elections are held in the state. Thiry has poured millions into different Colorado ballot initiatives over the years, including the passage of the state’s open primaries and the reimagining of the previous redistricting process

While Thiry is officially registered as an independent voter and has stated publicly to be a defender of democracy, his large financial contributions to local and state politics have raised questions about the fairness of money in politics. 

“I’m passionate about democracy,” he told The Colorado Sun.

Thiry was CEO of Colorado’s largest kidney care company from 1999 to 2019, he also served as the executive chairman of the board of directors for DaVita from June 2019 until May 2020.

During his time as an executive, Thiry became highly involved with politics, contributing financially to ballot measures in both Colorado and California. Between 2016 and 2018 Thiry supported four different ballot measures regarding redistricting and open primaries, all of which passed.

Both of these wins were made through the help of organizations at which Thiry either founded himself or held leadership positions. He and his company spent $2.5 million to help pass Propositions 107 and 108, the 2016 ballot measures that opened the door for independents to vote in party primaries. Nearly all the $2.5 million came from Thiry himself.

Like Thiry, other healthcare executives have made it their personal mission to pour millions into ballot initiatives, which are only allowed in about half the states. Thiry has given at least $6.9 million to Colorado ballot measures from 2011.

Overall, those in the health industry have spent more on ballot measures in Colorado than in any other state except Missouri and California, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, and that’s largely due to Thiry.

“He really has become the 800-pound gorilla of the ballot initiative process in Colorado,” Josh Penry, a Republican campaign strategist who has worked with Thiry, told the Denver Post. “He wields more power in an informal way than virtually all the elected officials if you look at the impact he’s had.”

Thiry’s only political loss was a ballot measure that required dialysis clinics to issue refunds to patients or patients’ payers for revenue above 115 percent of the costs of direct patient care and healthcare improvements. As of November 2023, Thiry had donated $6.7 million to state and local candidates and ballot measure committees in Colorado.

DeVita headquarters in Denver. Photo by SportsGuy789 via Wikimedia commons

DaVita, accusations and settlements

In 2015, Thiry’s dialysis company, DaVita, paid $495 million in a whistleblower settlement where the company was accused of defrauding the federal Medicare program. The suit was filed in 2011 when  Dr. Alon J. Vainer and Nurse Daniel D. Barbir noticed that DaVita was throwing out medicine that was still usable and billing Medicare and Medicaid for it.

Apart from the Vainer and Barbir case, DaVita settled two other whistleblower lawsuits. This includes a $55 million settlement in 2012 concerning double billing for the anemia drug Epogen and a $389 million settlement in 2009 related to kickbacks provided to kidney doctors for patient referrals. Additionally, DaVita paid $22 million to settle associated claims across five states.

“Health care providers should generate business by offering their patients superior quality services or more convenient options, not by entering into contractual agreements designed to induce physicians to provide referrals,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division Jonathan F. Olin said of the kickback case.

DaVita has also been involved in legal disputes related to labor practices and employment issues. In 2017, the company settled a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $383.5 million filed by current and former employees alleging violations of wage and hour laws, including failure to pay overtime and provide meal and rest breaks.

And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, a federal jury ordered the dialysis company to pay $383.5 million to families in a 2018 wrongful death suit. According to the lawsuit, three patients Irma Menchaca, Gary Saldana, and Deborah Hardin all suffered cardiac arrest and died after receiving treatment from DaVita centers. 

In 2022 Thiry and DaVita were acquitted of federal charges of suppressing competition within the healthcare sector. The charges came when federal prosecutors accused DaVita and Thiry of committing antitrust violations when they made agreements with competitors to not hire each other’s employees.

Antitrust laws aim to curb unlawful mergers and business practices that hinge on the formation of monopolies. While Thiry and DaVita were not found guilty of breaking antitrust laws they did engage in practices that severely limited the mobility of their employees from seeking employment with competitors.

Citizen United, nation divided

Until 2017, Thiry was a registered Republican, he gave financial contributions to the presidential campaigns of Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain along with state and federal candidates from either party. Thiry has also contributed to several political action committees including Fairness Frontier PAC, Unite America, and the Shared Purpose Super PAC. 

Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the prevalence of PACs and Super PACs has increased tremendously. Controversy surrounding PACs and Super PACs stems from concerns about the disproportionate influence of money in politics, exacerbated by the lack of transparency in campaign finance. 

The Supreme Court. Photo credit: Adam Szuscik via Unsplash

Critics argue that these groups enable wealthy individuals and special interests to exert undue influence over elections and policy outcomes, potentially leading to corruption or the appearance thereof. This influence undermines democratic principles by prioritizing the interests of wealthy donors over those of ordinary citizens, eroding public trust in the political system and creating the perception that politicians are beholden to the highest bidder rather than accountable to the electorate.

These same criticisms could be applied to a single individual funneling millions of dollars into local politics in an effort to transform the way elections are held. Not only that but the newest ballot measure Thiry is supporting, Senate Bill 101 is facing startlingly similar criticism that it would turn Colorado’s ballot access process into a “pay-to-play system” by completely replacing the state’s assembly and caucus system with signature gathering.

Critics argue that signature gathering bypasses the grassroots involvement and community engagement inherent in the caucus and assembly process. The caucus system allows ordinary party members to have a direct voice in selecting candidates, whereas signature gathering relies more heavily on paid signature collectors and fundraising efforts, potentially excluding those without financial resources.

Signature gathering typically requires significant financial resources to hire paid collectors and fund the campaign. This can disproportionately favor candidates with access to wealth or support from special interest groups, undermining the democratic principle of equal representation and opening the door to undue influence by wealthy individuals or organizations.

“Only the wealthy millionaires and billionaires and self-funders would have access to elected office in Colorado,” Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Shad Murib warned The Sun, last year.

For reference, in her bid for the position of Republican secretary of state candidate, Pam Anderson expended over $121,000 in efforts to gather the requisite 8,000 voter signatures required for her candidacy to be included on the ballot in 2022.

Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat is also concerned that Thiry’s proposal would make getting on the Colorado ballot more difficult for wheelchair users like himself. Ortiz who was injured in an Army helicopter crash in Afghanistan says that signature collection requires going door to door or standing outside for long periods in public spaces which might not always be accessible.

Aiming higher

One theory of Thiry’s critics is that this newest ballot measure is part of a larger bid for the Governor’s office, though he and his team have denied any plans for a future campaign. By advocating for sweeping changes to the state’s election process, such as replacing grassroots involvement with signature gathering, Thiry may be laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign, leveraging his wealth and political connections to shape the political environment in his favor. 

But replacing the current assembly and caucus isn’t the only thing the ballot measure could change. The bill would adjust the rules regarding when candidates can start gathering petition signatures and who can sign these petitions. Furthermore, the bill would adopt an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters could participate via ranked-choice voting. 

Other states have switched to open primaries with ranked-choice voting like that in Alaska. Open primaries with a four-candidate general election could weaken the power of both Democrats and Republicans, making ranked choice a favorite among those who’ve grown weary of the two-party system. 

Photo credit: Harold Mendoze (Unsplash)

Thiry’s significant financial involvement in Colorado politics, combined with the controversies surrounding his business practices and legal entanglements, has raised serious questions about the fairness and integrity of money in politics.

Currently, he has approximately 64 ballot initiatives he is working on getting on the ballot. He has withdrawn some since starting. YS will be working on a list of all of the proposed ballot initiatives once the dust settles.

His leadership at DaVita was marked by a focus on corporate profitability and efficiency in some cases over the lives of his patients. DaVita, under the leadership of Thiry, engaged in considerably anti-labor practices and in more than one case fought against fair and equal access to healthcare. 

Thiry’s emphasis on corporate interests and profit maximization, coupled with his resistance to certain regulatory measures, reflects a business mindset more in line with conservative values than the independent or nonpartisan persona he presents publicly. While Thiry touts that he is a staunch lover of democracy, his contributions to various political action committees and expensive self-funded campaigns to overturn the state’s election process have left some rightfully concerned. 

However, not every initiative Thiry has supported has been a detriment to democracy. Thiry presents an interesting dichotomy of a man who will support measures to increase the fairness of our electoral process but does so in a way that weakens it. Whether you support the measures Thiry is pushing in Colorado or not, it is hard to ignore the shadowy millionaire behind them.

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