GOP Steps Up Probe of White House Health-Reform Meetings

GOP members of the powerful U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee have stepped up their probe of secret back-room negotiations and quid pro quo deals struck in health reform, after the White House stonewalled requests for detailed information and documents and only submitted a handful of press releases and a list of staffers in the health-reform czar's office, Congressional sources tell FOX Business.

Energy and commerce officials have largely stopped asking the Administration for information and instead are now targeting 12 interest groups and unions “identified by the White House as having been at the White House during the secret health care negotiations,” and who played a key role in crafting the reform legislation, the committee says.

The dozen now targeted is up from an initial six groups.

At the center of the controversy are quid pro quo deals the Administration struck with unions and interest groups to either guarantee their backing or blunt any criticism of the new health-reform bill.

The committee also notes it wants more information about off-campus meetings at local coffee shops and in area row houses between Administration officials and the 12 interest groups and unions, so as to purportedly circumvent disclosure via the White House visitor logs, which are kept by the Secret Service.

The committee members sent letters requesting detailed information about lists of attendees, minutes of the meetings, emails, phone logs and estimates of health reform’s financial impact, as well as other documents, to AFL-CIO, AFSCME, AARP, AdvaMed, American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, American Medical Association, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Business Roundtable, Federation of American Hospitals, PhRMA, and SEIU.

FBN's Rich Edson reported last week that these letters had been sent.

Now there is talk of hearings being planned and subpoenas possibly being sent.

The same panel is probing controversial health-reform waivers given by the Administration to more than 1,000 companies and unions to help them cover workers via cheap insurance plans until reform kicks in, beginning in 2013.

"The American public was not properly represented during the Executive Branch's frenzied backroom wheeling and dealing that circumvented the legislative process in order to pass the massive health overhaul," GOP Committee members tell FBN.

The White House Responds

An administration official emailed this statement to FOX Business:

“The health-reform debate set a new standard for public engagement, with dozens of open meetings where the American people had the opportunity to share their views about the health-care system. From March 2009 – March 2010 over 260 people attended 11 open-press, health reform roundtable discussions at the White House; thousands more joined health reform discussions online.  Participants included doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospital officials, medical device makers, pharmaceutical company executives, farmers, ranchers, insurers, business trade associations, small business employers and employees. We are continuing to work with the committee on their information requests.”The official added: “For some historical perspective, the House of Representatives held 79 hearings and markups on health reform before it was enacted. House members spent nearly 100 hours in hearings, heard from 181 witnesses from both sides of the aisle.”

White House Wants to Protect Confidential Communications 

[EMac note: This section below was added after publication, after new information came to light].

The criticisms about stonewalling and lack of transparency may be off the mark. In a March 18 letter to four Congressmen on the House Energy and Commerce committee, Bauer, counsel to the President, writes that the "Administration recognizes that Congress has a legitimate institutional interest in gathering information, and will always cooperate with Congressional requests for information to the fullest extent," but that there is a "legitimate" interest in protecting the "confidentiality of Executive Branch communications."

That is a similar stance former Republican Vice President Richard Cheney took when he came under fire for holding back door meetings with oil and energy industry executives prior to the Iraq war.

Mr. Bauer wrote:

“…I appreciate your clarification that the Committee is not seeking internal Executive Branch communications and your offer to discuss the scope of your request, given the concerns expressed in my letter dated March 4. I have asked my staff to contact the Committee Chief Counsel, as soon as you suggest, to discuss the matter further.”

Other Congressional Democrats have also said that the Republicans quest here amount to a "fishing expedition."

An Administration official indicated that work with the committee is ongoing.

Quid Pro Quo Deals

The pharmaceutical drug industry, via its group PhRMA, agreed to support the health-reform legislation so long as it wasn’t forced to give rebates on drugs sold in Medicare, and so long as its costs didn’t surpass $80 billion over 10 years. In return, the drug sector spent more than $100 million on advertisements and commercials plugging the law.

This deal could be notably embarrassing, because in effect, a Democrat President solidified a deal with Big Pharma that let the drug industry continue to charge higher prices in Medicare in return for $100 million in political ads to support the law.

Former House Energy and Commerce chairman Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of PhRMA, and former Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) CEO Jeff Kindler, chairman of PhRMA at the time, met with White House officials to discuss reform, industry sources note.

Kindler’s name has been floated as a potential nominee for Secretary of the Commerce Dept., along with Eric Schmidt of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).

The hospital groups struck a deal offering $155 billion over 10 years with Democrats to help pay for reform. The $155 billion would come through lower Medicare and Medicaid payments to hospitals, with the understanding that new government-sponsored health insurance exchanges would not pay at lower Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement rates.

The union AFSCME got its licks in, too. It got the Administration to soften the tax on high-end insurance plans, called Cadillac plans.

The AMA backed reform hoping Democrats would back off on the so-called doc fix, which is a 23% cut in Medicare reimbursement to doctors. Democrats have repeatedly promised to stall the doc fix, reports indicate.

White House Declines to Give Info

The committee says it initially reached out to former health-reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle about these deals, but information was not forthcoming after “White House Counsel Robert Bauer sent a letter to the committee on March 4 declining to cooperate with its request, describing it as too ‘vast and expensive.’”

“The White House -- which has repeatedly pledged to be the ‘most open and transparent administration in history’ -- has only provided a handful of press releases and incomplete visitor logs.” the committee says in a statement.

The committee says that “the investigation has been broadened to seek documents and records directly from those organizations invited by the White House to help craft the law -- behind closed doors, and without input from Congress” at “numerous closed-door meetings between representatives of the administration and various special interest groups with significant financial interests in the legislation.”

It adds the reform bill “appears to have rewarded some interest groups who have the right connections -- in this case to the Obama administration -- while imposing huge financial burdens on the large swath of the American public who did not have special access to the White House.”

The questions the committee wants answered:

“What proposals were discussed? What potentially useful proposals were never considered? What measures were discussed and then eliminated from consideration? What cost-saving measures were rejected? Why? What particular financial interests did the groups at the negotiating table have in the various proposals that were discussed? Were those proposals adopted or discarded? What deals did the administration strike with these special interest groups?”

Circumventing Disclosure Via Off-Site Meetings?

Committee members also want to know about off-site meetings the Administration purportedly held at coffee shops in the nearby Jackson Place complex or in conference rooms in row houses just off Lafayette Square, purportedly thought to circumvent White House visitor logs, sources tell FBN.

The White House did promulgate early on that it was the first Administration to disclose White House visitor logs, hailing it as part of its efforts to be the “most transparent Administration.”

The House Energy and Commerce committee notes that a recent report by Politico “underscores the questionable nature of White House record keeping, revealing that White House visitor logs do not provide an accurate account of who has actually visited the White House grounds.”

For example, “the White House’s efforts to escape scrutiny by meeting with special interests groups at a neighboring Caribou Coffee are also well documented,” the committee says.

Politico, a D.C. media outfit that covers Washington’s policy machine, issued a report based on analysis by the Center for Public Integrity that noted that less than 1% of the estimated 500,000 visits to the White House in the President’s first eight months have been disclosed.

The report says that the logs, kept by the Secret Service, are missing the names of thousands of visitors to the White House, “including lobbyists, government employees, campaign donors, policy experts and friends of the first family.”

Politico also reports that “several of the lobbyists involved [at these off-campus meetings] say they believe the choice of venue is no accident,” adding “it allows the Obama administration to keep these lobbyist meetings shielded from public view -- and out of Secret Service logs kept on visitors to the White House and later released to the public.”

Politico quotes immigration reform lobbyist Tamar Jacoby as saying “they’re doing it on the side. It’s better than nothing.” And Politico says “at least four lobbyists who’ve been to the White House Conference Center in row houses just off Lafayette Square tell Politico they had the distinct impression they were being shunted off to Jackson Place -- and off the books -- so their visits wouldn’t later be made public.”