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Economist Was Under Contract With HHS While Touting Health Reform Bill

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MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, left, and Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, right, testify on Capitol Hill about health care reform May 12. (AP Photo)

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the leading academic defenders of health care reform, is taking heat for failing to disclose consistently that he was under contract with the Department of Health and Human Services while he was touting the Democrats' health proposals in the media. 

Gruber, according to federal government documents, is under a $297,600 contract until next month to provide "technical assistance" in evaluating health care reform proposals. He was under a $95,000 HHS contract before that. 

But while he was being paid to provide his services to HHS, he was also fending off health care reform critics in the media. Gruber was one of the prominent analysts to rebut an insurance industry report from PricewaterhouseCoopers in October saying premiums would shoot up if a health care bill passes. And he has recently written columns defending specific provisions in the House and Senate bills, particularly the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost insurance plans. 

The liberal base of the Democratic Party is widely opposed to that tax, out of fear that it will cut into union benefits -- which may explain why the first criticism of Gruber came out of liberal blogs. 

"I have never seen it disclosed that he was a paid consultant to the Obama administration," a blogger for Firedoglake wrote Friday morning. "For months I have been angry with Gruber because I thought he was simply an exaggerator whose dangerous love of the spotlight was hurting the efforts of progressives to make sure the Senate bill adopted more progressive cost control solutions. ... Now it is clear something much more sinister was at play." 

The Daily Kos declared that, given Gruber's contract, the "fix was in" for the Cadillac plan. 

Gruber, when contacted by Fox News, acknowledged that he has a contract with HHS, but he said it has nothing to do with his public advocacy. 

"NONE of the work I have done in public, or any public declarations I (have) made, has been in any way funded by the administration," he wrote in an e-mail. "That funding was strictly for internal work that I did for the administration and, via the administration, for Congress. All externally visible work and comments, such as my editorials or public reports, have been done on my own time." 

Gruber said he "firmly" believes in the positions he advocates, and he said he has not been secretive about his contract with HHS. "I have told reporters whenever they asked," he said. 

He noted that he disclosed his relationship with the Obama administration in a Dec. 24 column for The New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed, the "disclosures" link at the bottom of that article online takes the reader to a form showing Gruber is a "paid consultant to the Obama administration." 

But a column in The Washington Post on the Cadillac tax just a few days later did not disclose his relationship with the administration. Gruber was listed merely as a "professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." 

Government documents explaining the terms of his contract say that he was "uniquely positioned" for providing analysis for the health department's assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, describing him as a "recognized expert in health policy in economics."