Junkfood Science: Update: More conflicts coming to the HHS?

February 01, 2009

Update: More conflicts coming to the HHS?

An update to the earlier post looking at the new leadership selected for the Health and Human Services Department — and finding troubling conflicts of interest and a heavily-financed lobbyist selected for deputy secretary — is probably in order, given this weekend’s news.

There’s lots of talk about addressing problems of corruption in the healthcare system and promises to clean up the influence of special interests and lobbyists. But, as with everything, it’s also a matter of definition.

The New York Times reports this morning that HHS Secretary-Designate Tom Daschle has admitted to failing to pay $128,000 in taxes. But, more importantly and directly related to his new position and his goal to reform our entire healthcare system — decisions that will affect our health and the care our doctors can provide — was a notation further down the article:

[T]he revelations about his finances — which include more than $300,000 in income from health-related companies that he might regulate as secretary — raise questions about the presidential vetting process, as well as Mr. Obama’s ability to keep his pledge to run an administration free of outside influence…

As a politician, Mr. Daschle often struck a populist note, but his financial disclosure report shows that in the last two years, he received $2.1 million from a law firm…and at least $220,000 for speeches to health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also received nearly $100,000 from health-related companies affected by federal regulation.

Mr. Obama has instituted rules requiring former lobbyists in his administration to pledge not to deal with former clients, though he has made exceptions for two nominees, one at the Pentagon and one at the health agency. As a strategic adviser to companies, Mr. Daschle did not have to register as a lobbyist, and is not technically covered by those rules.

“He’s never lobbied, therefore he’s not in violation of the pledge,” Mr. Gibbs said. “The president is comfortable with Senator Daschle’s variety of experiences and backgrounds. It’s why he believes he’s best suited to the efforts to reform our health care system.”

It’s all a matter of definition. The Los Angeles Times provided more details on the financial disclosures, reporting this morning:

Though not a registered lobbyist, the South Dakota Democrat over the last two years earned more than $2.1 million as a "special policy advisor" at Alston & Bird, a law firm with more than 50 lobbying clients in the healthcare industry.

According to financial disclosure forms filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Daschle also took in $153,200 in 2008 for giving speeches to healthcare companies and industry groups such as GE Healthcare, a leading manufacturer of medical devices… Tom Daschle has indicated he plans to resign from Alston & Bird if he is confirmed. He already stepped down from more than a dozen boards, including that of the Mayo Clinic, another influential voice in the healthcare debate.

Last month, the Office of Government Ethics concluded that Daschle "is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations governing conflicts of interest."..

In addition to asking about the taxes, Republican lawmakers plan to ask Daschle about his work at Alston & Bird, whose clients have included pharmaceuticals such as Abbott Laboratories, hospital groups such as HealthSouth Corp. and pharmacies such as CVS Caremark Corp. Daschle personally represented Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group, one of the country's largest health insurers, Backus said.

In September, Daschle also earned $20,000 for speaking to America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's lobbying arm in Washington. Others who paid to hear from Daschle last year include Premier Inc., the Moses Cone Health System, the National Assn. of Boards of Pharmacy, CSL Behring, Misys Healthcare Systems, Prime Therapeutics and Ingalls Health System...

This time, it’s actually the press shining the light on Washington lobbying.

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