Jonathan Gruber on the Government Payroll

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A small scandal is brewing in the health care policy world today concerning Jonathan Gruber, a health care economist at MIT. Gruber has been a source for many, many journalists covering the health care reform debate – including me. As Firedoglake’s Marcy Wheeler reports on her blog emptywheel, Gruber had been working as a government consultant while he was serving as a source for reporters. Journalists have often identified Gruber as an advocate for reform, which has been obvious, and as someone who has advised Congress, but until now, his government contracts – worth some $400,000 – have not been widely known.

It should be noted clearly that Gruber was under contract to evaluate proposals and lend his expertise on the health care system and reform. He was not hired to tout reform to the press.

Still, if I had known Gruber had such a contract, I would have disclosed this fact to readers when I quoted him. (For the record, I would have still quoted him and I was aware that he was one policy expert among many who advised Congress. Quoting him in an Oct. 13, 2009 story I identified him as “a respected MIT economist who has advised lawmakers on health reform.”) But the attribution should have gone further. I’m of the belief that readers should have as much information about sources as possible within the confines of journalistic writing. Readers should know why journalists trust particular sources or if sources have even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Gruber’s contract with the government is something that should have been widely understood.

Gruber helped develop the Massachusetts model for the health care reform that is the basis for much of what federal health care reform could do. Without going too far into his pedigree here, I’ll just say that I believe he has a deep and informed understanding of the health care system, it’s moving parts and how those moving parts affect each other. Here’s what Ezra Klein, who writes an opinionated blog about health care and economic policy expert for the Washington Post, had to say today about the disclosure of Gruber’s ties to the government:

I wasn’t aware of that, and if I had been, I would’ve made sure it was disclosed when I quoted Gruber. On the other hand, the implication that Gruber is somehow a paid shill for this bill belies a fairly long and consistent record in support of health reform, and in particular, this type of health reform.

Jonathan Cohn, a progressive blogger at The New Republic, who knows more about health care policy than almost anyone in journalism – and who has written a book about it – said this:

…Wheeler’s criticism gave me some pause. (While I don’t always agree with her, I’ve always found her to be fair.) On some occasions, I’ve cited Gruber without mentioning that he was an adviser. I assumed readers knew that because I’d mentioned it before and because, at least within policy circles, it’s widely known. But, of course, not everybody reads every item I write. And not everybody follows this debate that closely. In the future, I will mention Gruber’s role as an adviser every time, not just some of the time. Readers are entitled to that information, so that they can make their own judgments.

For what it’s worth, one of the reasons I cite Gruber frequently is that, in my experience, he’s sincere to a fault. As he says, his views have been consistent, going back many years. And, more than most experts I know, he is willing to call out friends and allies when his projections suggest they are wrong. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, of course. (He and I differ over some more subjective questions, like how much cost-sharing is excessive.) But, like so many of my colleagues, I trust him to tell me what he really thinks–and, more important, to use numbers at which he’s arrived honestly.

Since the disclosure of Gruber’s government contract, Ben Smith at Politico posted a defense from Gruber. It’s here. Smith has gotten a few more quotes from Gruber since. Those are here. I don’t think Gruber intended to keep his government contract a secret. As Smith reported, Gruber disclosed his affiliation with the Obama administration in a recent article he wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine. But regardless, it’s not Gruber’s responsibility to list his potential conflicts of interest when he talks to reporters. That’s on us. We should ask sources about their affiliations and who pays them more often. This is a good reminder.