By Aleksandra Sidorova and Bryn Fawn
UnitedHealth Group, the parent company of the SUNY system’s partner insurance, UnitedHealthcare, shared on its website and Twitter account that it donated $1 million Friday, March 4, to support relief efforts for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. According to TransparencyUSA, an organization keeping record of donations to political candidates at all levels in 11 U.S. states, UnitedHealth Group also donated $50,000 directly to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the current election cycle. The donation raised concerns for the values of LGBTQ support that UnitedHealthcare, the SUNY system and SUNY Plattsburgh claim to uphold, as DeSantis is an active supporter of a controversial bill. The donations also raise a larger question of whether the money that corporations donate speaks for their values.
The bill in question that DeSantis supports is “HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education.” It is colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as part of the bill limits the discussion of LGBTQ identities in classroom settings:
“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Rep. Joe Harding proposed HB 1557 Tuesday, Feb. 8. The bill passed in Florida’s House Thursday, Feb. 24, and through the state’s Senate Tuesday, March 8. If signed, the bill would take effect July 1.
On the same day the bill was proposed, the White House tweeted, “Today, conservative politicians in Florida advanced legislation designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids.” In response, President Joe Biden tweeted, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are.”
LGBTQ activists, such as Equality Florida, have criticized the bill for its vague language: what is considered “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate?” What are “state standards,” and who decides what they are? The legislation does not directly indicate what “manner” of instruction is inappropriate in a classroom setting. This inclusion would allow parents to sue academic institutions that speak on LGBTQ matters not just from kindergarten to third grade, but all grade levels.
With the potentially harmful implications the bill has for the LGBTQ community, the donation to DeSantis raised questions as to whether UnitedHealth Group, SUNY and SUNY Plattsburgh are upholding their values of inclusivity and LGBTQ support.
UnitedHealth Group responded to a comment on Twitter from user @warrior_4_good containing a graphic alleging that the company donated $200,000 in direct support of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill: “It’s important to note that the company did not take a position on the legislation referenced.” This response has been replaced with a link to the company’s sustainability report, the most recent of which states, “We invest in the LGBTQ community to ensure everyone feels supported and is well served.”
SUNY, as a system, claims to support the LGBTQ community as well.
“At SUNY, we pride ourself on providing a safe and equitable living, learning, and working environment for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and other communities,” the SUNY website reads.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are also core values for SUNY Plattsburgh — one of the four “pillars” of the three-year strategic plan announced Tuesday, Feb. 22.
However, SUNY does not partner with UnitedHealth Group directly. Instead, the partnership is secured through the insurance broker company Haylor, Freyer & Coon. The broker offers SUNY several “bids” from insurance companies, and SUNY selects the insurance that provides students with “the best coverage at the lowest price,” Jacqueline Vogl, director of the Global Education Office, said. Because political donations are not considered in the “procurement process,” it is unlikely that the company’s political donations will influence SUNY’s decision of whether to renew the contract.
“The SUNY System Administration will be requesting “bids” from insurance brokers (like HFC) this summer,” Vogl wrote in an email. “So there are a couple of layers of separation between SUNY Plattsburgh and United Health Group.”
Adeeb Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi sophomore majoring in economics and minoring in political science and business, said it is common for companies to donate to both ends of the political spectrum. UnitedHealth Group is no exception. According to OpenSecrets, a non-profit organization for tracking corporate political donations, in the 2020 election cycle, 63% of UnitedHealth Group’s donations to federal candidates — $415,784 — was to democrats, and the remaining 37%, amounting to $244,044, was to republicans. There is no data available for the 2022 election cycle.
“It’s an investment, really, because [companies] want to make sure that no matter who’s in power, they always have someone who’s going to be friendly with them,” Chowdhury said. “I think that kind of shows that their donations don’t represent their moral or political values, but at the same time, there is this feeling of discomfort that I have of being covered by an insurance organization that is so supportive of agendas that are so contrary to what I believe and what I stand for.”
How do the $50,000 donated to DeSantis compare to the $1 million donation to Ukraine? Are both of them “investments,” or are they both self-standing reflections of the company’s values?
Andrew Payro, a domestic student who identifies as queer, believes donations are indicative of corporate values, but not the values of people who work for or support the corporations.
“That’s like claiming that the young, gay teenager who had to get a job at Chic-Fil-A because they had no other choice, is homophobic, or had direct say in donation — that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “But on a company-wide level, yes, I don’t think you can say that your company supports the LGBTQ community and then donate to something that directly harms the LGBTQ community.”
UnitedHealthcare provides services that it calls “gender dysphoria treatment” aimed at transgender clients. However, Payro said many services commonly associated with transgender people, such as hormone replacement therapy or breast surgery, are also performed for cisgender people — people who identify with the gender associated with their sex.
“I would actually go as far as to say that whether or not this company provides gender-affirming care, it does not necessarily make them transgender advocates,” Payro said.
All SUNY Plattsburgh students, domestic and international, must have health insurance to attend the college, and go on UnitedHealthcare unless they sign a waiver. Domestic students usually waive the school’s insurance because they already have insurance, for example, through their parents’ work benefits. International students usually do not.
“There is a waiver process for international students to pursue a waiver of their health insurance, but they must show that the insurance they want to use is comparable in every way to the insurance that’s mandated by SUNY,” Vogl said. “Our coverage is extraordinary, so it’s rare — almost never — that a student presents insurance that is comparable. And if it’s not comparable, we, as an institution, are not allowed to waive it.”
If international students disagree with UnitedHealth Group’s donations, switching to a different insurance is an option, albeit a difficult one.
However, some students, like Chowdhury, may choose not to switch regardless of whether the corporation’s donations match their personal beliefs, because many other insurance companies make donations similar to UnitedHealth Group.
“There’s not much you can do about it,” Chowdhury said. “If you’re not comfortable with UnitedHealth’s donations, then whatever insurance company you go for, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ve done similar things.”
Chowdhury also noted that other insurance providers may charge their customers more money and “put a financial burden” on him and his family.
“I don’t want to put my family and myself in a much more difficult position just to be able to say that I’m not supporting this organization,” he said. “There’s no good options here: we have to choose between standing up for our beliefs, our values, versus doing what’s best for me personally and my family.”
Payro noted that there is little that someone who uses the insurance can do as an individual, due to how necessary the service is.
“It’s hard because these companies hold so much power. There’s very little that we, as the people, can do,” he said. “We, as the people, live in this system that we can’t really fight our way out of — you can’t really fist fight your insurance into supporting you, unfortunately.”
Despite that, Chowdhury thinks SUNY can allow its students more freedom and opportunities to engage in activism. He said:
“I definitely think that the student body should be as involved as possible in political activism to whatever extent they’re comfortable with, or to whatever extent they’re capable of. And I think the SUNY system should do what’s best to accommodate political activism and political speech.”
Payro agreed, hoping that the SUNY Plattsburgh campus would be able to start a conversation and “continue to non-performatively strive to take care of their LGBT students” by educating its community on the subtle ways that everyday things, such as the school’s choice of insurance, can affect its students.