White House Stonewalling Release of Health Industry Meetings

Despite assurances to the contrary, President Barack Obama once again dismissed efforts by Republican congressional investigators who were attempting to gain access to data important to the inner workings of the meetings between the White House and groups deemed to have special interests in the President’s sweeping health care reform bill. These special interest groups form the backbone of financial support behind the President’s reforms.

The President had stated previously that all negotiations regarding the ACHA would be held openly, with press access; however, this has proven to be untrue, as meetings between the executive branch and representatives from pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and insurance industry lobbyists continue to be held in private.

Why the reversal in policy? When pressed for a response to this question, Robert Bauer, legal representative for the White House, issued a letter, stating that submitting to the request form the House Energy and Commerce Committee for records “would constitute a vast and expensive undertaking” which would “implicate longstanding executive branch confidentiality interests.”

“We are both concerned and disappointed by your response,” responded Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., to Bauer’s letter. “The American public deserves the information we have requested. The secret meetings conducted by (White House officials) are a perfect example of why transparency in government is so important.”

Upton went further by urging the white House to reconsider the request, though it isn’t certain whether the ECC will get the information it is seeking. Should the situation escalate to the point where a congressional subpoena is issued, historical precedent shows that such cases are rarely fruitful, as the executive branch has been very successful in protecting its privacy in the name of interests of national security.

What the EEC has requested from the administration regarding the health care reform act is broad in scope and intensive in details, comprising lists of each meeting, phone conversation, and face-to-face meeting in reference to the health care changes. Also requested are any notes or summaries of such meetings and calls. Employee data, including salary information, from the now-defunct health reform office has been asked for, as well as any written communications this office’s employees had with outside organizations.

Perusal of the White House visitors registers, which were made public at the request of the Associated Press in 2009, demonstrate that the President’s top aides had frequent meetings with lobbyists and other health care industry officials during the crucial, long-winded debate over health care overhaul prior to the ACHA’s passage.

On that visitor’s list are such prominent names as that of George Halvorson, the chairman/CEO of Kaiser Health Plans, Kenneth Kies, Washington lobbyist and Blue Cross/Blue Shield representative, Scott Serota, President/CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Billy Tauzin, former head of drug lobby PhRMA, and Richard Umbdenstock, American Hospital Association chief, as well as many others.

Drug industry and hospital representatives did initially agree to grant tens of billions of dollars in discounts to finance the coverage for the uninsured individuals who are the focus of the ACHA. However, since then, the Obama administration has steadily stripped these discounts and savings and showed preference to these special interests. For example, they amended legislation, allowing hospitals years of reprieve on making those cost-saving cuts, and they stopped the passage of legislation which would have permitted lower-cost prescription drug importations, a move which would have damaged pharmaceutical companies’ bottom-line. Ironically, the President had campaigned during his bid for election on a plank of low-cost prescription drugs for all.