President Obama’s Visits With For-Profit Healthcare Executives Puzzles Advocacy Groups

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According to a Washington-based watchdog group, President Barack Obama met with top executives from the for-profit health insurance industry 35 times since February. By contrast, President Obama has had zero meetings with some of the largest health consumer advocacy groups.

The information was released after Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit to obtain the White House’s visitor log book. On Wednesday, White House General Council, Greg Craig, responded to the lawsuit and released a letter that included the names of health industry executives and the dates of the meetings. The letter was issued one hour before the president’s prime time news conference.

Documents show that Obama met seven times with Richard Umdenstock, the President and CEO of the American Hospitals Association. Obama also held conversations four times with Karen Ignani, the President of American Health Insurance Companies. Obama also met six times with Billy Tauzin, the President and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and his colleague Rick Smith, Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategic Communications.

Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) says President Obama has not lived up to his own transparency standard.

“It shows a deep disconnect between the President’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability and what the actual practices of his administration are,” Weismann said.

The White House did not release the official records, and the documents that they did provide excluded the time, length, and purpose of the meetings. Because of this missing information, CREW will press on with the lawsuit.

“It’s a small piece of the puzzle obviously. We never claimed that this information would reveal all,” says Weismann.

It’s up to speculation if the visits from the for-profit executives influenced Obama’s vision for health care reform. Since the visits, however, the president has announced deals with these industries which resulted in: $80 billion in savings to the Pharmaceutical companies, $150 billion in savings from hospitals, and commitment from the insurance companies to avoid a smear campaign.

Other players involved in the health care debate haven’t gotten a fair chance to gain Obama’s attention. Health Care for America Now (HCAN) – a coalition of more than 1000 groups consumer advocacy groups across the country who support the public option — has not had a meeting with Obama.

“It’s always discouraging that money in Washington buys power and it’s discouraging that money buys access,” says Jacki Schechner, Communications Director for HCAN.

Schechner says HCAN focuses its outreach through its members, rather than on professional lobbying and campaign contributions. Schechner says their voices are heard at rallies and with calls to Congress.

Dr. Quinton Young is with Physicians for a National Health Program, single-payer advocacy group, says single payer proponents have “absolutely not” been offered, or been granted, a meeting with the President.

The union, SEIU, a major Democratic backer who played a big role in advancing Obama into the presidency, has had access to the White House. Andy Stern, President of the SEIU says he has met with the President, is in touch with his staff, and his members attend the President’s town hall meetings. He says he’s not bothered by the meetings with the health care executives.

“I’d be worried. If the President wasn’t so strong about cutting costs, I’d be worried. If he was against, which he isn’t taxing millionaires, I’d be worried,” Stern says.

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