On Jonathan Gruber and Disclosure

By MichaelJames

Jan 9, 2010 11:01am

The New York Times has an editor's note today:

"On July 12, the Op-Ed page published an article by Jonathan Gruber, a professor of economics at M.I.T., on health insurance and taxation. On Friday, Professor Gruber confirmed reports that he is a paid consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services, and that his contract was in effect when he published his article. The article did not disclose this relationship to readers.

"Like other writers for the Op-Ed page, Professor Gruber signed a contract that obligated him to tell editors of such a relationship. Had editors been aware of Professor Gruber's government ties, the Op-Ed page would have insisted on disclosure or not published his article."

In November this blog, too, cited Gruber's work with no disclosure (and no knowledge) that he had nearly $400,000 in lucrative contracts with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Gruber has been a go-to voice for reporters seeking a respected academic view on health care reform costs — and as far as I can tell, few if any knew that in March he was awarded a $95,000 contract with HHS and in June a $297,600 contract with HHS for providing "Technical Assistance in Evaluating Options for National Healthcare Reform."

A Dec. 28, 2009 Washington Post op-ed by Gruber made no such disclosure. The piece, titled "'Cadillac' tax isn't a tax — it's a plan to finance real health reform" makes that case, strongly opposed by labor unions, that the Senate health care bill's proposed "40 percent assessment on insurance plans with premiums of more than $8,500 for singles and $23,000 for families … would reduce the incentives for employers to provide excessively generous insurance, leading to more cost-conscious use of health care and, ultimately, lower spending."

This is the same "Cadillac tax" proposal that President Obama is pushing House and Senate health care reform negotiators to include in the bill — and yes, it's the same one he opposed on the campaign trail, noting in October 2008 in Newport News that some workers have "given up wage increases in exchange for a better health care."

Gruber's nearly $400,000 contract with the Obama administration seems to have first been noticed by a citizen-journalist-blogger, Mote Date at Daily Kos.

Ben Smith of Politico then jumped on the case.

Gruber told Smith:

"I do indeed have a contract with HHS. Throughout this year I have provided technical assistance to the administration and to Congress with my micro-simulation model, as well as based on my experience as a member of the Massachusetts health connector board. But NONE of the work I have done in public, or any public declarations I have made, has been in any way funded by the Administration. That funding was strictly for internal work that I did for the administration and, via the administration, for congress. All externally visible work and comments, such as my editorials or public reports, have been done on my own time.

"Moreover, at no time have I publicly advocated a position that I did not firmly believe — indeed, I have been completely consistent with my academic track record. On the two issues this article raises:

"1) I am known in economics as one of the leading experts on the impact of health insurance costs on wages — indeed, I wrote my thesis on that topic and have written extensively since on the fact that health insurance costs are fully translated into wages. I was asked by the editors of the Handbook of Health Economics, a review of literature in this area, to write the review article on this topic.

"2) In my role as a member of the MA Health Connector board, I had to help decide what were affordable subsidies for our citizens. I was surprised to find how little work there was on this topic so I undertook a study to help lay out what might be considered affordable. I have since replicated that analysis at the federal level. Every position I have advocated on this topic is completely consistent with these reports."

Gruber noted that in November he disclosed his relationship with the administration in an International Committee of Medical Journal Editors disclosure form he filled out before the New England Journal of Medicine published his story.

But the issue, as Smith and FireDogLake and others have noted, isn't Gruber's New England Journal of Medicine story, it's that he's been so frequently cited by members of the media as an expert — reporters who didn't know the Obama administration was paying Gruber nearly $400,000.

Such as Ron Brownstein's influential piece on health care reform in the Atlantic. Democratic senators such as John Kerry continue to push his work, likely just as oblivious as the rest of us as to Gruber's HHS contract.

None of this of course means that Gruber's arguments are wrong. But without question the relationship needed to have been disclosed so that the public could independently make that assessment for itself.

-jpt

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