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."
As surgeon general, Dr. Murthy would become the nation's most recognizable doctor, overseeing 6,700 public health care professionals and 200,000 volunteers.
Dr. Murthy has pledged to recuse himself from any specific matters involving the Center for American Progress for a year after his resignation from Doctors for America, according to ethics forms he signed last month.
A big supporter of Obamacare, he is the latest nominee with ties to the Center for American Progress to join the Obama administration.
The organization's founder, John Podesta, is taking a job as counselor to Mr. Obama. Other alumni include Brian Deese, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff.
After mounting scrutiny, the Center for American Progress recently disclosed a list of more than 50 corporate funding sources, including several with health care interests. It's unclear based on the list whether those funders donated to the center or to Doctors for American or both.
The corporate donors include Quest Diagnostics, Health Care Service Corp., Eli Lilly and Co., and CVS Caremark, all of which lobby HHS.
The White House made no mention of Dr. Murthy's ties to the Center for American Progress in announcing his nomination in November. It described him first and foremost as co-founder and president of Doctors for America, even though his financial disclosure forms list no income from that position.
Since last year, Dr. Murthy reported earning $173,900 in salary from the Brigham and Women's Physician Organization in Boston and $220,000 from privately held Epernicus LLC, a software firm he helped found now known as TrialNetworks.
An early backer of Obamacare, he appeared at a White House event in 2009 along with other doctors to tout Mr. Obama's health care initiative. He also hasn't been shy about wading into other contentious debates.
Last fall, as lawmakers debated gun control legislation, Dr. Murthy shared his thoughts on Twitter: "Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns b/c they're scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue."
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