WASHINGTON Administration officials began talking privately to major players in the health care industry within a few weeks of President Barack Obama's inauguration, a newly released list of White House visitors shows.
During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to hold lobbyists at arm's length and make his administration the most transparent ever.
Last night, the Obama administration released the list of visits by health care executives after a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced it had filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking the White House visitor logs. Only names and dates were released, not the visitors' titles or employers.
So far, the Obama administration is following a Bush administration policy of refusing to release the logs, which are maintained by the Secret Service.
The list shows that Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association, was at the White House on Feb. 4 and has been back at least a half-dozen times since then, most recently May 22. Other industry executives making February visits included health insurance company chief executives Angela Braly of WellPoint Inc. and Jay Gellert of Health Net Inc.
Gellert, a $500 donor to Obama's presidential campaign, visited the White House on Feb. 10, twice in March and on May 11, while Braly visited on Feb. 13.
In recent weeks, the White House has announced agreements under which hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry promised cost savings in return for an expanded base of insured patients. The deals were struck in private meetings, drawing comparisons to Vice President Dick Cheney's secret talks with the energy industry as he helped President George W. Bush draft a national energy policy. Cheney's 2001 meetings were criticized by Democrats throughout the Bush years.
Obama was asked at a news conference last night about his administration's refusal to say who had been to the White House to discuss a national health care overhaul.
"On the list of health care executives who visited us, most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures," he told the assembled reporters, "so it hasn't been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But, frankly, these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating."
CREW said it was pleased that the White House had provided the list but that it didn't consider it a sufficient response to its Freedom of Information Act request for the visitor logs themselves. It plans to continue pressing for them.
"The actual visitor records likely would indicate with whom each official met, the administration official who requested clearance for the visitor, the time of the meeting, the duration of the meeting and, in some cases, the purpose of the meeting. In addition, no information was provided regarding any visits to the vice president's residence," CREW said in a written statement.
Gregory Craig, White House counsel, told CREW in a letter that the White House was continuing to review the group's open-records request, "as well as the White House's general policy governing the discretionary release of visitor records."