MIT economist and federal contractor Jonathan Gruber denies conflict of interest despite advocacy for Obama health plan

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Widely cited health-care economist Jonathan Gruber, a professor at MIT, accepted money from the federal government at the same time he advocated for reforms proposed by the Obama administration.

Prominent journalists who have quoted Gruber’s work extensively, from Ezra Klein at the Washington Post to Ron Brownstein at the Atlantic, have expressed surprise upon learning that Gruber received at least $392,600 in sole-source contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the last year.

The White House made one of Brownstein’s posts, which cited Gruber as “a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties,” mandatory reading for its staffers.

Peter Orszag, the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, also linked to the Brownstein article on his blog.

Meanwhile, Ed Morrissey at hotair.com asked, “And speaking of Orszag, did anyone notice that Gruber’s CV shows four separate papers the two have written together?”

Links to Gruber’s HHS contracts are here.

An explanation of why it was a “no bid”contract is here.

Several journalists posted statements this weekend voicing concern over Gruber’s lack of full disclosure (see: Ben Smith, Megan McArdle, Ezra Klein.) Many are pointing to Gruber’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that defended the Obama administration’s proposals — in which he is referred to simply as  a “professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

At the Atlantic, Brownstein writes:

“Given the prominence with which I quoted Jonathan Gruber of MIT in several recent pieces, I’ve been asked today whether his work for the administration came up at any point in our interviews on health care. I looked through my notes this morning of the two conversations I had with him last fall on health care, and in the notes there is no indication that his work for the administration came up — it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask and he didn’t raise it.”

Gruber also received $566,310 during the last two years from the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the HHS Department, to conduct a study on the Medicare Part D plan. That puts the total federal money Gruber received in the last two years at $958,910.

Gruber sent a statement to Politico’s Ben Smith explaining why he believed there was no conflict of interest:

“I do indeed have a contract with HHS. Throughout this year I have provided technical assistance to the administration and to Congress with my micro-simulation model, as well as based on my experience as a member of the Massachusetts health connector board. But 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. 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.”

Separately, Smith posted the following:

“The [New England Journal of Medicine] asked me, so I disclosed it. Nobody else really asked,” Gruber told me a few minutes ago, adding that the journal article was “the most important” to disclose because it was an explicit defense of the plan.

Smith cited an email exchange he had with the Washington Post which stated they had asked Gruber if he had any conflicts of interest and he had answered no:

“Washington Post op-ed editor Autumn Brewington emails that the Post, as a practice, asks writers to disclose any ‘conflicts of interest that might be relevant to this op-ed, including but not limited to financial or family relationships with any of the subjects of the article’ and that Gruber, when asked whether he ‘received any funding, for research or otherwise, from organizations or persons identified in the column,’ answered ‘no.'”

Gruber told Fox News there was no conflict of interest because all of the statements and advocacy he did in public was based on research he did on his own time.

Gruber’s background is well known, or should have been to the journalists who described him simply as an academic expert on health care. His profile on MIT’s page says he “was a key architect of Massachusetts’s ambitious health reform effort,” and boasts that in 2008 the Washington Post named him “possibly the [Democratic] party’s most influential health-care experts.”