- - Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Promises, promises. Once upon a time, Barack Obama said he would put an end to monkey business as usual in Washington. “First,” he said, “we will close the revolving door that has allowed people to use their administration job as a steppingstone to further their lobbying.” Like so many of the president’s campaign pledges, this one has proved to be a fairy tale.

Andy Slavitt is the most recent man to step out of the spinning door, appointed to regulate a company he once ran. Mr. Slavitt was executive vice president of Optum/QSSI, a division of UnitedHealth Group, and last week became principal deputy administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Through its subsidiaries, UnitedHealth Group has played a critical role in designing, developing and implementing the federal Obamacare exchange. In January, Optum/QSSI got the lucrative role as “senior adviser” to the effort to fix Healthcare.gov website after its botched rollout last October.

This contract gives the UnitedHealth subsidiary an insider’s view of the administration’s decision-making and a significant advantage over competing firms without a direct line to the federal health care bureaucracy. The Department of Health and Human Services shows no concern for the potential conflicts of interest.

Two Republican senators, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, wrote to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services demanding that the agency hand over emails and documents related to UnitedHealth Group’s work as the chief Obamacare subcontractor, and how the proprietary and personal information will be protected against misuse.

The senators are worried that “a significant amount of data regarding highly sensitive aspects of [federally facilitated exchange] operations, including payment calculation for reinsurance, risk adjustment and risk corridors, and the required data collection to support these services” could be used to give the company an advantage in winning contracts to provide Obamacare services for other states.

As the No. 2 official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Mr. Slavitt can shape the agency’s response to congressional concern, and be able to clear his former employer of the suspicion that it would abuse its position. That has the sour aroma of the influence peddling that Mr. Obama promised to eliminate with his ban on hiring lobbyists.

Influence peddling is one of the capital’s chief industries. Writing in the Journal of Public Affairs, Conor McGrath last year counted 119 ex-lobbyists on the White House payroll, including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The Obama administration has carried on the ancient Washington tradition of rewarding party loyalists. UnitedHealth executives were generous contributors to Mr. Obama’s campaign, and so UnitedHealth executives enjoy the benefits of their generosity. Beatrice Welters, for example, enjoyed 2 years as U.S. ambassador to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Mrs. Welters and her husband, a UnitedHealth executive, brought in $600,000 to the Obama campaign and inauguration fund.

Campaign promises are cheap, and we all know to discount them, but Mr. Obama made this promise the centerpiece of his 2008 campaign. He has defined himself with broken promises. He worries about his legacy, as well he should, because broken promises will be a large part of that legacy.

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