The White House has trumpeted President Obama’s surgeon general nominee as president of a grass-roots doctors group, but Doctors for America, founded by Dr. Vivek Murthy, is actually a well-connected liberal-leaning operation.
Initially named Doctors for Obama in 2008, the group is now connected with the Center for American Progress, the major liberal think tank that has been stunningly successful in injecting its alumni into the highest levels of the administration.
Dr. Murthy’s connection with the center is now raising questions about his independence, particularly since the think tank has been traditionally reluctant to reveal its corporate backers, and little information exists about who is funding Doctors for America.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said there should be greater transparency for the group whose co-founder is poised to become the country’s top doctor.
“The donors to that organization have some expectation that their donations will keep them in the good graces of folks whether they’re on their way in or out of government,” she said.
Ms. McGehee said that’s true for the Center for American Progress more broadly because the think tank has become a “holding place for policy experts in waiting” to join the administration.
“As a 501(c)(3), it has the expectation of anonymous donors, but what’s different is you have people associated with the organization going into public office. You need transparency if you have people going into the administration,” she said.
Although the center has begun to reveal more about its funding, it’s still impossible to tell whether donors include those seeking to influence health policy.
Doctors for America declined to provide a list of its donors in response a request by The Washington Times. The group says it raises its own money, though donors are told on the website disclosure that the contributions are tax-deductible because Doctors is a project of the Center for American Progress.
With the Center for American Progress acting as its fiscal sponsor, the physicians organization said it doesn’t take direction from the think tank and conducts its own fundraising.
“The vast majority of our funding comes from individual donors and foundations,” said Brannon Jordan, a spokeswoman for the organization. “In fact, in 2013, over 95 percent of our funds came from 501(c)(3) foundation grants and individual donations.”
The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the surgeon general’s office, declined to comment on whether ethics officials had reviewed the nonprofit funding sources to vet any potential conflicts of interest.
Former Obama Medicare chief Donald Berwick faced similar questions during his confirmation battle. He ran a nonprofit think tank, but he declined to release information about its donors in response to requests from Republicans who questioned whether he could have a conflict of interest.
Dr. Murthy’s work with Doctors for America is likely to surface as an area of inquiry as lawmakers vet his nomination, according to a Senate aide who was not authorized to discuss the nomination publicly because it is pending.
“For example, both Doctors for America and the Center for American Progress benefit from favorable tax status under federal law as an allegedly nonpartisan nonprofit,” the aide said. “Yet this arrangement raises legitimate questions about Murthy’s role with Doctors for America, its donors, and possibly inappropriate coordination with the White House and HHS officials.”