Take the Money and Talk: Top Health Care Policy Analyst Declined to Disclose Administration Consulting Fees


Here's one way to get rich off of ObamaCare: Take nearly $400,000 from the administration's Health and Human Services Department to consult on health care reform, don't bother to mention this to anyone, and then offer up your opinions as a prominent analyst and advocate for the administration's health care plans.

According to federal disclosure forms, starting in March of 2009, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber took $392,000 in fees from HHS to consult on "the estimated changes in health insurance coverage and associated costs and impacts to the government under alternative specifications of health system reform." At the same time, he served as one of the most prominent academic analysts and advocates for health care reform, providing putatively unbiased interviews and analysis to Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic, and Ron Brownstein at The Atlantic (among others) without disclosing his consulting fees.

Gruber's defense is that, well, no one ever asked. But it's absurd to think that it's a journalist's responsibly to check specifically for every possible conflict of interest, and Gruber, as a respected public policy voice, should have known better. Klein, Cohn, and Brownstein, all of whom support health care reform, have now said that while they don't believe that Gruber is anything close to an unreliable shill or a flack, they do think their readers should have been made aware that Gruber was in the pay of the administration.

That sounds about right. Gruber, who helped design the Massachusetts health care system, is a true believer in the cover-'em-all, mandates-n-regulations brand of health care reform, so it's likely that he still would've supported Democratic reform proposals no matter what. But even still, money — especially that kind of money — has a way of subtly shaping people's ideas and opinions, and of checking the criticisms that one is willing to make publicly. As Megan McArdle (here's my own disclosure — she's my fiancée!) writes:

I am sure that what Gruber is saying comports with what he believes. [But] my guess is that like me, most journalists would have treated him as an employee of the administration, with all the constraints that implies, rather than passing along his pronouncements as the thoughts of an independent academic.  Christina Romer is a very, very fine economist.  But her statements about administration policy are treated differently from statements by, say, her colleague Brad De Long.

I don't have any problem with Gruber taking the money or doing the consulting, and his work should be judged on its merits rather than its funding. But given his role as a public advocate and analyst, and given the especially high standard to which governments should be held when it comes to transparency, the payments should've been disclosed.

Of course, Gruber isn't the first public figure to take money from an administration and then proceed to sell its ideas: Remember Armstrong Williams, the journalist who took $240,000 from the Bush administration to help promote education reform? How about Maggie Gallagher, the gay-marriage basher who took $20,000 from the Bushies to write a report on how the government can strengthen gay traditional marriage? Disclosure issues aside, Gruber's work strikes me as more legitimate; despite my disagreements with the ideas he favors, I will readily concede that he's a legitimate expert on modeling the effects of health care policy, which is very, very difficult. But he should have been more up front about the fact that he was getting paid by the administration for that expertise when speaking to the media as an impartial source.