Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lobbying and Health Reform: Reading Between the Lines

Part of the fun in reading the national news section of The Washington Post has always been the deciphering – trying to figure out who an unnamed source might really be or trying to find hidden meaning in a certain quote.

By that standard, the Post’s July 6 front-page article on the significant presence of Capitol Hill insiders among the multitudes lobbying Congress on health care reform was a veritable goldmine, especially for followers of the pharma/biotech industry.

One portion of the article details the number of former aides to Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), respectively the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, who have been lobbying that committee and others in Congress on various facets of health care reform. No fewer than seven of Baucus’ and five of Grassley’s former aides are among the hundreds of health care industry lobbyists currently trying to shape health care reform.

Particularly wielding the influence, it appears, is the bipartisan lobbying shop Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, which includes both Baucus’ former chief of staff David Castagnetti and Grassley’s former health policy adviser Colette Desmarais. According to a nifty full-color chart offered by the Post, both Castagnetti and Desmarais represent 10 clients in the health care reform battle, among them six pharmaceutical or health care products companies, two HMOs and two hospital/nursing home associations.

Not to be outdone, there is Barrett Thornhill, listed as a former health policy legislative assistant to Finance Committee member Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho). Thornhill, a lobbyist with Foley Hoag, represents 13 different pharmaceutical and health care products companies in his work. (Though we wonder whether Thornhill's client list doesn't reflect his most recent job at the Biotechnology Industry Orgranization, rather than his past connection to a minority member of the Finance Committee.)

Eager to prevent any sense that Baucus, Grassley and co. might be influenced by this phalanx of former aides in crafting their version of health care reform legislation, Baucus spokesman Scott Mulhauser helpfully told the Post that Baucus and staff meet daily with people representing the full spectrum of stakeholders in the health care reform effort. “The senator and his staff … are proud that all interests are treated equally and that no one receives special treatment of any kind,” Mulhauser is quoted as saying. “As a result, the Finance Committee has been praised by members of Congress and by the media for its uniquely inclusive and transparent health-care reform process.”

No, we wern't aware either that the Post now is reprinting press releases.

In fairness to Baucus and Grassley, they have been very open in releasing white papers and options drafts outlining possible directions for reform. Its just that it sure seems like some stuff is going on behind close doors, like hammering out $80 billion in savings from the pharmaceutical industry to help fund the cost of reform.

Which leads us to our favorite part of the article, a priceless quote by PhRMA head Billy Tauzin, responding to critics of his decision to join the trade group shortly after helping shepherd the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, which created the Part D drug benefit, through Congress.
“Is it a distortion of baseball to hire coaches who have played baseball? Is it a distortion of universities to hire from academia,” Tauzin asked rhetorically in the Post piece. “The bottom line is that people work in fields in which they have experience. Somehow there are people who think that’s unusual for politics, but I think it’s pretty normal.”

Well, as the Post likes to say in its advertising, “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.”

Joseph Haas

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