The Spectacle Blog

MIT Economist Who Touted Obamacare Was on HHS Payroll

By on 1.8.10 | 10:59AM

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber raked in nearly $300,000 from the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services while frequently appearing in news accounts as a non-partisan analyst who supported Democratic health care legislation.

Gruber defended himself to Ben Smith at the Politico, arguing that HHS didn't fund his "public declarations" and that he didn't say anything that was contrary to what he believed. Gruber also told Smith "that he has told reporters of the contract 'whenever they asked' and noted that he formally disclosed that 'I am a paid consultant to the Obama Administration' in a form attached to his most recent, December 24 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, though it wasn't widely known by reporters on the beat."

However, December 24 was the day the health care bill passed the Senate in a vote that by that point was a mere formality -- and six months after his contract with HHS was awarded on June 19. In that time, his research was frequently cited to bolster Democratic health care claims. When health care legislation was under fire for not actually bending the cost curve, Gruber was publicly defending the cost-containment provisions, and was cited as an unbiased source, often in fawning terms.

For example, on Nov. 21 -- the day the Senate passed its initial motion to proceed to debate on the Senate health care bill -- Ron Brownstein posted an item for the Atlantic titled, "A Milestone in the Health Care Journey."

Here's how it began:

When I reached Jonathan Gruber on Thursday, he was working his way, page by laborious page, through the mammoth health care bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had unveiled just a few hours earlier. Gruber is a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties. He was one of almost two dozen top economists who sent President Obama a letter earlier this month insisting that reform won't succeed unless it "bends the curve" in the long-term growth of health care costs. And, on that front, Gruber likes what he sees in the Reid proposal. Actually he likes it a lot.

"I'm sort of a known skeptic on this stuff," Gruber told me. "My summary is it's really hard to figure out how to bend the cost curve, but I can't think of a thing to try that they didn't try. They 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."

The same day, Kaiser Health News ran a story by the New Republic's liberal health care reporter Jonathan Cohn, titled, "The Senate Bill Saves Families Money." Cohn writes that, "At my request, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber produced a set of figures, based on official Congressional Budget Office estimates. The results tell a pretty compelling story, particularly when put in human terms." Cohn uses Gruber's analysis to work toward his conclusion that the Senate bill "will make people's lives significantly better."

On Dec. 28, the Washington Post ran a column by Gruber defending the tax on "Cadillac" health care plans. The bottom of the piece merely identified Gruber as "a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

Gruber's contract with HHS was brought to light on the liberal blog DailyKos, which along with other liberal sites and unions, is fiercely opposed to the "Cadillac" tax.

UPDATE: I also see this ironic item written by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein in October, in which he used data from Gruber -- being "pushed" by the Obama administration -- to counter an insurance industry funded study that found health care legislation would raise premiums. The post claimed "Gruber certainly has a lot less incentive to twist the facts than the insurance industry does." At no point did the item disclose that Gruber was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from HHS.

UPDATE II: Ezra has today acknowledged that he should have disclosed the contract, but wasn't aware of it until now. Jon Cohn says he assumed Gruber was getting paid for his work for the administration, but now regrets not disclosing it more consistently.

UPDATE III: And now Brownstein responds.

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