During the heyday of the ObamaCare push, Jonathan Gruber was whiz-kid-in-chief. His number-crunching on the benefits of the plan was frequently cited by Democrats trying to sell the proposal to the public.
Now, Washington Democrats have a new message: He’s not with us.
After a string of videos have emerged showing Gruber gloating about how the law’s authors exploited Americans’ “stupidity,” the White House has distanced itself. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi even claimed: “I don’t know who he is. He didn’t help write our bill.”
But while Jonathan Gruber might not have been a familiar name until this week for many, Pelosi and the rest of the lawmakers who pushed the law certainly knew who he was in 2009 and 2010.
A look at the record shows he was in fact paid to advise the Department of Health and Human Services. And he continues to play a role in health policy elsewhere, even as his unearthed videos cause headaches for the administration, just ahead of this weekend’s Round 2 enrollment launch.
Gruber, an MIT professor and economist, has lived amid the health care debate in Washington for at least 20 years.
Gruber was retained by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2009 on a $297,600 contract to provide “technical assistance in evaluating options for national healthcare reform.” Gruber also confirmed to The Washington Post that he was paid another $95,000 before that, for a total of nearly $400,000.
Around this time, his analysis was not only featured on Pelosi’s House speaker website in 2009, but cited by the White House several times. Though he often was billed as an analyst in media interviews where he touted the merits of the plan, critics complained his financial ties to the administration weren’t disclosed.
Gruber also spent a good deal of time testifying on the Hill and in meetings at the White House – 19 visits from 2009 to June of this year, according to publicly available logs
Aside from his work in Washington, he went on to bag similar contracts for health care work at the state level after that, working six-figure deals with multiple states.
“He talks himself about being in the Oval Office, on loan to Congress, particularly the Senate Budget Committee,” Rich Weinstein, who helped dig up the Gruber tapes, told FoxNews.com.
Weinstein has made a hobby of sorts out of researching Gruber’s involvement. Weinstein said after losing his own health insurance plan due to ObamaCare, he decided to do some background research on the “architects” of the bill, who were making the rounds on the TV circuit promoting the benefits of the legislation.
He first unearthed some Gruber remarks in July, showing him at a January 2012 forum appearing to suggest that ObamaCare was designed to pressure states to set up health care exchanges or risk valuable tax subsidies. (The precise ACA language on subsidies and Congress’ intent is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, King v. Burwell, which the Supreme Court agreed to take up last week.)
That video attracted some attention, but he unleashed a bombshell this week – a video where Gruber is heard referring to the American public as stupid, forcing Gruber to respond. Conservative group American Commitment and others circulated the video, and it went viral.
In the clip, Gruber suggested the law would not have passed if it was made explicit that healthy people would “pay in” and the sick would get money for coverage. “Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get the thing to pass,” he said.
Weinstein said while it’s a question how much of the law Gruber actually wrote – it’s a sausage with many makers – there’s no doubt his stamp is on it.
Gruber, an MIT economics professor who specializes in cost modeling for health care policy, also helped design the individual mandate system in Massachusetts, otherwise known as “RomneyCare” – which Obama aides said was the basis for their proposal.
In a 2012 interview with PBS, he made his involvement crystal-clear: “I helped [Governor] Romney develop the Massachusetts health care reform, or Romneycare. I then worked with the Obama administration and Congress to help develop the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare.”
The involvement didn’t end there. In 2011, he published a graphic novel, “Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works,” promoting the ACA.
Gruber is still in demand to help other states overhaul their health care systems. According to reports in July, he was hired by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin for $400,000 to study how to create a revenue stream for a single-payer health care system. Records show Minnesota paid him nearly $330,000 for health care work in 2011 and 2012. And around the same time, a 2012 contract from Michigan offered $481 million for health care analysis to a team of three firms, including Gruber and his “Gruber Microsimulation Model.”
Some ObamaCare critics already are calling for hearings in response to the videos.
“They’re going to have to answer to the American people on C-SPAN in a transparent way -- even though they didn’t do it when they passed the bill, they’re going to be held accountable in public view this time,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., told Fox News.
Defenders of ObamaCare say the tenets of the law have been transparent from the get-go. If anything, they are blaming Gruber for getting it wrong. Brian Beutler of The New Republic wrote, “His suggestion that the key cost-sharing tradeoffs weren’t widely discussed just isn’t true.”
Jerold Duquette, political science professor at Central Connecticut State University, argued on his blog that "all legislation is framed for maximum political acceptability and minimum pushback" and "includes spin intended to short circuit opposition spin." He wrote: "The incredibly phony outrage of conservative pols and pundits is pitiful."
Gruber, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, expressed regret for his comments on Tuesday on MSNBC. “I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately, and I regret making those comments.”
Several more videos have emerged this week since the “stupidity” clip. They included speeches where he talked about how the so-called Cadillac tax on high-end health plans was envisioned to charge insurance companies rather than consumers, all the while knowing the enrollees would get hit with higher prices anyway as a result.
In one clip, he said of the Cadillac tax: “They proposed it and that passed because the American people are too stupid to understand the difference.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest disagreed with Gruber, telling reporters on Thursday, “The fact of the matter is, the process associated with the writing and passing and implementing of the Affordable Care Act has been extraordinarily transparent.”
But ObamaCare opponents say this is more proof the administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill misled lawmakers and voters. “This guy keeps digging himself a deeper and deeper hole,” said Phil Kerpen, of American Commitment, a conservative nonprofit which has spent millions on issue ads favoring Republicans in the last two election cycles. “And all Democrats can do is pretend that this guy wasn’t the architect who was central to writing and passing the law when all the facts say he was.”