Obama held secret meetings with health execs

Administration officials began talking privately to major players in the health care industry within a few weeks of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a newly released list of White House visitors shows.

Obama on Wednesday night released the list of visits by health care executives after a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced it planned to sue to try to get White House visitor logs. Only names and dates were released, not the visitors’ titles or employers.

So far, the Obama administration is following a Bush administration policy of refusing to release the logs, which are maintained by the Secret Service.

The list shows that Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association, was at the White House on Feb. 4 and has been back at least a half-dozen times since then, most recently May 22. Other industry executives making February visits included health insurance company chief executives Angela Braly of WellPoint Inc. and Jay Gellert of Health Net Inc.

Gellert, a $500 donor to Obama’s presidential campaign, was there Feb. 10, twice in March and on May 11, while Braly visited on Feb. 13.

In recent weeks, the White House has announced agreements under which hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry promised cost savings in return for an expanded base of insured patients. The deals were struck in private meetings, drawing comparisons to Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret talks with the energy industry as he helped President George W. Bush draft a national energy policy. Cheney’s 2001 meetings were criticized by Democrats throughout the Bush years.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to hold lobbyists at arm’s length and make his administration the most transparent ever.

Obama was asked at a news conference Wednesday night about his administration’s refusal to say who has been to the White House to discuss a national health care overhaul.

"On the list of health care executives who visited us, most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures," he told the assembled reporters, "so it hasn’t been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But, frankly, these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating."

CREW said it was pleased that the White House had provided the list but that it didn’t consider it a sufficient response to its Freedom of Information Act request for the visitor logs themselves. It plans to continue pressing for them.

"The actual visitor records likely would indicate with whom each official met, the administration official who requested clearance for the visitor, the time of the meeting, the duration of the meeting and, in some cases, the purpose of the meeting. In addition, no information was provided regarding any visits to the vice president’s residence," CREW said in a written statement.

Gregory Craig, White House counsel, told CREW in a letter that the White House was continuing to review the group’s open-records request, "as well as the White House’s general policy governing the discretionary release of visitor records.

Other health care industry representatives named in the list and the dates they visited were:

  • Registered lobbyist Billy Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman who heads the drug industry lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He went to the White House on March 5, the day of a summit on health care, and again on May 11, 19, June 2 and June 24.
  • Registered lobbyist Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade association, March 5, 6 and 11, May 11 and June 30.
  • Dr. J. James Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Association, March 25, May 11, and June 22 and 24.
  • William Weldon, CEO of Johnson & Johnson health care product and pharmaceutical company, May 12.
  • Jeffrey Kindler, CEO of drug maker Pfizer Inc., March 5, May 6 and June 2.
  • UnitedHealth Group Inc. chief executive Stephen Hemsley, May 15 and 22.
  • George Halvorson, head of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., March 27, May 11 and June 5.
  • Thomas Priselac, chief executive of the Cedars-Sinai Health System, April 3 and May 11.
  • Richard Clark, CEO of the Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company, March 24 and May 11.
  • Wayne Smith, chief executive of Community Health Systems, June 4.
  • Registered lobbyist Rick Smith, a senior vice president of PhRMA, May 11 and 19 and June 2.
  • David Nexon, senior executive vice president with trade association AdvaMed, May 11.


On the Net:

White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: http://www.citizensforethics.org