White House catered to lobbyists on health care

President Barack Obama’s top aides met frequently with lobbyists and health care industry heavyweights as his administration pieced together a national health care overhaul, according to White House visitor records obtained by The Associated Press.

The records, obtained Wednesday, disclose visits by a broad cross-section of the people most involved in the health care debate, weighted heavily toward those who want to overhaul the system.

The list includes George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Health Plans; Scott Serota, president and CEO of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association; Kenneth Kies, a Washington lobbyist who represents Blue Cross/Blue Shield, among other clients; Billy Tauzin, head of PhRMA, the drug industry lobby; Richard Umbdenstock, chief of the American Hospital Association, and numerous lobbyists.

The AP in early August asked the White House to produce records identifying communications that top Obama aides — including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisers David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, and 18 others — had with outside interests on health care. The AP in late September narrowed its request to White House visitor records for those officials on the topic of health care.

The White House on Wednesday provided 575 visitor records covering the period from Jan. 20, when Obama was inaugurated, through August. The records give the name of each visitor to the White House complex to see people on AP’s list, the date of the visit, the White House staffer they were supposed to see and, in some cases, the purpose of the visit. The records do not identify the visitors’ employers, say on whose behalf they were there or give any specifics of what was discussed.

The records list the kinds of people usually involved in Washington policymaking: business, union and trade association executives, lobbyists and political strategists. Wednesday’s disclosure was significant because of Obama’s campaign promise to change business as usual in Washington, and because he voluntarily released records showing the access of special interests as the administration crafted national health care policy.

Earlier this year, the White House announced agreements under which hospitals and the drug industry promised cost savings in return for the overhaul’s expected expansion in the number of insured patients. The arrangements were hammered out 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. In that case the Bush White House steadfastly fought efforts to have visitor records released.

Obama recently began releasing visitor information on a rolling basis, and the White House put out another batch Wednesday afternoon apart from AP’s request. The president “vowed to run the most transparent and ethical administration in our history, and our release of these records underscores our commitment to following through on that,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin. He added that the list demonstrates that the president is listening to voices from across the health care spectrum.

Several lobbyists for powerful health care interests, including insurers, drug companies and large employers, visited the White House complex, the records show:

• Laird Burnett, a top lobbyist for insurer Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., and a former Senate aide. Kaiser has spent some $1.7 million lobbying Congress over the past two years.

• Joshua Ackil, a lobbyist whose clients include Intel, U.S. Oncology Inc., and Knoa Software Inc., all of which have reported lobbying on the health care overhaul. Ackil met with Dan Turton, the White House’s deputy legislative affairs director who works with the House, in August.

• Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget chief, met in late March with representatives for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, including chief executive Serota, in-house lobbyists Alissa Fox and Kris Haltmeyer, and Kies, one of its outside lobbyists and a former top GOP congressional tax aide.

• Amador “Dean” Aguillen, a former aide to Nancy Pelosi but now with Ogilvy Government Relations, appears to have attended the same Aug. 21 meeting with Turton that Ackil did. At Ogilvy, Aguillen works on behalf of clients including pharmaceutical companies SanofiPasteur and Takeda Pharmaceuticals America, Pfizer Inc., and Amgen USA Inc., all of which reported lobbying on health care issues this year.

• Joel Johnson, a lobbyist with close ties to Rahm Emanuel, appears to have met with his friend one-on-one in May, according to the logs. Johnson, a partner at the Glover Park Group, lobbies for several health interests including United Healthcare Services Inc. and Kinetic Concepts Inc., a medical products maker.

• Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a health care ethicist, special White House adviser on health care and brother to Rahm Emanuel, met in late March with lobbyists and executives from the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc. The meeting included the company’s chief executive, Richard Clark, and a vice president, Richard Pasternak, as well as in-house lobbyist Jane Horvath. Also attending was Jonathan Hoganson, a lobbyist at an outside firm who represents Merck as well as PhRMA, the drug industry’s major trade association, and several other of its large members including AstraZeneca and Abbott Labs.

• Rahm Emanuel had an early July meeting with two labor leaders, John Sweeney, then the president of the AFL-CIO, and Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and their top lobbyists, Bill Samuel and Chuck Loveless. Sweeney and the AFL-CIO’s Samuel also had a visit with Emanuel in March.

The logs show a late-July meeting between Nancy-Ann DeParle, the director of Obama’s Office of Health Reform, and lobbyists from the Business Roundtable, the association representing chief executives of major U.S. firms. The group has spent $9.3 million lobbying over the past two years and is keenly interested in the outcome of the health overhaul debate. Among the attendees were the group’s top lobbyist, John Castellani, and Antonio Perez, the CEO of Eastman Kodak Company.

White House officials met repeatedly with the American Medical Association, which has pushed hard — over the objections of some physicians — for the health overhaul and a corresponding pay hike for doctors. Ezekiel Emanuel included Dr. J. James Rohack, the AMA’s president, in a large meeting in March. DeParle met in August with the association’s top lobbyist, Richard Deem. That same day, she also huddled with Richard Trachtman, who lobbies for the American College of Physician Services Inc., which represents internists.

Ezekiel Emanuel met in March with executives and lobbyists from Trinity Health, a Michigan-based company that bills itself as the country’s fourth-largest Catholic health system. Listed as attending the meeting were Joseph Swedish, the company’s chief executive, and Paul Conlon, another top executive, as well as in-house lobbyists and two from the Washington firm Alston & Bird LLP. The lobbying firm is professional home to several former senior health officials in Congress and past administrations, as well as former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, who served as majority leader and was Obama’s original pick as health and human services secretary.

Representatives of the seniors lobby AARP also met repeatedly with White House officials, the records show. Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett met in June with Barry Rand, the group’s chief executive, and two of his top lobbyists, John Rother and Nancy LeaMond. Rother and LeaMond were back the following month with a third lobbyist, David Sloane, to meet with Orszag.

AARP in early November endorsed the House Democratic health care bill, giving the legislation a major boost.

The broader White House disclosure Wednesday — issued in response to specific requests — included just over 2,000 visits from the time of Obama’s inauguration through August. The White House plans in December to start posting all White House visitor records from mid-September onward, and to do so periodically.

They show the expected, eclectic parade of administration officials, economists, consultants, dignitaries and guests to special functions. Oprah Winfrey’s two visits are logged. Reflecting the tenor of the times, the most frequent visitor was Lee Sachs, the Treasury Department’s point man on the financial crisis, who came to the White House more than 60 times.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jim Drinkard, Alan Fram, Jim Kuhnhenn and Calvin Woodward contributed to this report.

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