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White House Releases List of Health Care Officials Paying Visits

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's administration began holding private meetings with health industry executives at the White House a few weeks after he took office, a visitor list released Wednesday night by the White House shows. Lobbyists were among those there to talk health care.

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, was there Feb. 10 and twice in March, while Braly visited on Feb. 13.

Obama released a list of White House visits by health care executives after a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced it planned to sue to try to get White House visitor logs. So far, the Obama administration is following a Bush administration policy of refusing to release the logs, which are maintained by the Secret Service.

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 drew criticism from Democrats throughout the Bush years.

"The president has decided to exercise his discretion and release the following information, which is reflected in the relevant visitor logs," Gregory Craig, White House counsel, wrote to CREW. "We are continuing to review your specific FOIA request, as well as the White House's general policy governing the discretionary release of visitor records."

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to hold lobbyists at arm's length and make his administration the most transparent in history. Asked at a news conference Wednesday night about his administration's refusal to say who has been to the White House to discuss a national health care overhaul, Obama replied that he believed a list of health industry executives who had visited had just been released.

CREW said it was pleased 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.

"Finally, transparency is not situational. It is not sufficient for the White House to release certain visitor records shortly before a press conference to avoid distraction," the group said.

According to the list, health care industry representatives who attended meetings at the White House and the dates they visited include:

--Registered lobbyist Billy Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman who heads the drug industry lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He went to the White House on March 5, the day of a summit on health care, and again on May 19, June 2 and June 24.

--Registered lobbyist Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade association; March 5, 6 and 11 and June 30.

--Dr. J. James Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Association; March 25 and June 22 and 24.

--William Weldon, CEO of Johnson & Johnson health care product and pharmaceutical company; May 12.

--Jeffrey Kindler, CEO of drugmaker Pfizer Inc.; March 5, May 6 and June 2.

--UnitedHealth Group Inc. chief executive Stephen Hemsley; May 15 and 22.

--George Halvorson, head of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.; March 27 and June 5.

--Thomas Priselac, chief executive of the Cedars-Sinai Health System; April 3.

--Richard Clark, CEO of the Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company; March 24.

--Wayne Smith, chief executive of Community Health Systems; June 4.

--Registered lobbyist Rick Smith, a senior vice president of PhRMA; May 19 and June 2.

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