Wednesday January 13, 2010

Revealed: Top Commentator on Health Bill Under $400K White House Contract

By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 12, 2010 ( – An expert economist who has commented influentially in favor of President Obama’s health care overhaul in major publications, touting the bill’s purported cost-saving effects, has been under a $400,000 contract to model those effects for the Obama administration – unbeknownst to many in the journalistic sphere.

Politico reported Friday that MIT Economist Jon Gruber failed to disclose the fiscal relationship, most of which was established last June, while he offered commentary on the health bill to newspapers and magazines – including Politico.

“I’m an ivory tower guy at heart and do my thing and figure I’m an honest guy and people will trust it,” Gruber told Politico when confronted with the issue. He pointed out that he had disclosed his contract with the Department of Health and Human Services in the New England Journal of Medicine’s (NEJM) formal disclosure process.

Yet, Politico’s Ben Smith said that “the disclosure does not appear in any number of other places: beside his quotations in newspapers and magazines supporting the plan, including a Ron Brownstein piece the White House pushed hard; under a recent Washington Post op-ed; and beside crucial statements, such as his dismissal of an insurance industry study, which was part of a successful administration fight to discredit the study.”

While supporters say the health care overhaul will ultimately cut the national deficit, the claim has come under intense fire from lawmakers and commentators who say such numbers are drastically inaccurate, and mask the danger of a bill some analysts say will increase government spending by $2.3 trillion.

In Brownstein’s November piece, Gruber hailed the cost-saving measures in the Senate health care bill, saying that Democrats “really make the best effort anyone has ever made.” “Everything is in here. … I can’t think of anything I’d do that they are not doing in the bill. You couldn’t have done better than they are doing,” he said. Gruber was referred to in the piece as “a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties.”

In his December Washington Post op-ed, Gruber defended the highly controversial “Cadillac tax” exised on high-cost health plans, claiming it “doesn’t walk like a tax or talk like a tax – because it is not a tax. It is an innovative way of financing the health reform we so desperately need.” Critics say the Cadillac tax, which Democrats hope will help foot the cost of the bill, would place too heavy a burden on middle class workers in its current Senate bill form.

Smith also reports that, when Washington Post op-ed editor Autumn Brewington asked Gruber as part of routine disclosure protocol whether he “received any funding, for research or otherwise, from organizations or persons identified in the column,” Gruber answered “no.”

Brewington nonetheless defended the column, saying that “the subject of the op-ed was not related to Gruber’s work for the administration, and we accepted the column based on the body of his work and knowledge in this field.”

Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic defended Gruber’s integrity, and said he was aware of the relationship, but noted that “other journalists writing on health care were not aware that Gruber was doing projections for the administration.” “Obviously this was not as widely known as I thought,” he wrote.

Liberal blogger Marcy Wheeler said the question of whether Gruber actually believed what he preached “wasn’t the point,” and questioned why Gruber only disclosed the contract to the NEJM – the one publication that might have otherwise negatively impacted his professional reputation.

“So, nine months after he first gets a contract with HHS, he starts disclosing the relationship, and only to the organization that [could have] totally discredit[ed] him professionally, not to those that will more directly affect the health care debate?” Wheeler wrote.