Consultant who made 'stupidity' remark about health car law will finish Vermont work for free

Economic IndicatorsAssociated Press

An economist who said "the stupidity of the American voter" helped pass the complex federal health care law has agreed to finish his work on Vermont's health insurance systems for free, a top state official said Wednesday.

But the state will continue to pay assistants working with Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who advised the Obama administration as it crafted the Affordable Care Act.

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Vermont will likely end up paying about $280,000 of the original $450,000 the state had agreed to pay Gruber's team and a subcontractor, said Lawrence Miller, director of health reform for Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Gruber has been under fire for several days after a series of videos gained attention showing him saying a lack of transparency and public understanding were key to Democrats getting the legislation passed. He has since disavowed the most controversial remarks, saying he "spoke inappropriately" and regrets making those comments.

Shumlin this week joined a drumbeat of criticism that began among conservative commentators, saying he shared the outrage and was shocked by Gruber's remarks. But the governor rejected calls from Republicans for the state to sever relations with Gruber.

Gruber and his team have been analyzing options for financing a universal health care system, sometimes known as single-payer, that Shumlin hopes to launch later this decade. The administration is set to present its financing plan to lawmakers in January.

Miller spoke during an orientation day for newly elected lawmakers at the Statehouse on Wednesday, saying Gruber's comments were "offensive, inappropriate and do not reflect the thinking of this administration or how we do things in Vermont." But he added, "As we have also said, we need solid economic modeling in order to move forward with health care reform."

Gruber said in an email Wednesday that he did not want to comment.

Miller said in a later interview that he had garnered an agreement from Gruber that the state would no longer pay Gruber any money, but would continue to pay $100 per staff hour for work done by Gruber's assistants. He said the work would be reviewed by four other economic consultants and by the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office.

Also Wednesday, Miller said there had been "glitches" in the five days since the state resumed operations of its Vermont Health Connect health insurance exchange, but that the system was working well overall.

That was in marked contrast to the system's initial rollout in October of 2013. From then and through much of this year, the system and its website were plagued with technical and security problems, with the state ending up switching both its prime contractor and the administration official overseeing the project.