Obamacare transparency fail: Who’s still waiting for waivers and who got denied? Obama won’t tell us

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Amidst the news that 38 of the 204 Obamacare waivers approved in April went to posh entertainment venues in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s district, new questions about the Obama administration’s transparency pledge have arisen.

Although the administration has approved more than 1,300 Obamacare waivers and published the recipients’ application information online, it has not made public which companies and other entities have been denied waivers and why they were denied.

Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) won’t release that information, nor will they publicly release the identities of those still waiting for a decision. HHS won’t even say how many applications are in the queue.

This lack of transparency has the administration’s conservative critics reeling.

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin told The Daily Caller she thinks this has a “stench of favoritism” that  “can’t be removed until and unless such a list is released.”

“The most snort-worthy aspect of the White House spin on its health care waiver program is the idea that the administration is ‘promoting transparency,’” Malkin said in an email. “As usual, Team Obama is stonewalling on full disclosure of the waiver process. Americans deserve a thorough accounting of everyone who applied, everyone who was denied, and why.”

Malkin said she worries, too, about how many elected officials might be walking friendly businesses through the waiver application process behind closed doors. “We also need more transparency on Capitol Hill,” she said. “How many members of Congress have personally intervened on behalf of waiver applicants? I feel a FOIA wave coming on.”

Pelosi’s office denies any connection to the waiver recipients in her district. Flex-Plan Services, a provider of insurance services to several small companies in Pelosi’s congressional district as well as elsewhere, is taking credit for helping the companies in Pelosi’s district apply for waivers. A co-owner of Flex-Plan, Hilarie Aitken, told the Huffington Post that the companies being granted Obamacare waivers in Pelosi’s district had “nothing to do with her [Pelosi] at all.”

Even so, Heritage Foundation health policy expert Edmund Haislmaier told TheDC it naturally looks like a cover-up even if it isn’t.

“Even if they’re doing their utmost scrupulous best to be fair, this whole process they’ve got is inherently suspicious,” he said.

The White House’s most recent waiver defender, HHS spokesman Richard Sorian, did not return TheDC’s multiple requests for answers to which companies have been denied waivers and which and how many are still waiting for a decision. Sorian defended the Obamacare waiver system on the White House’s blog after TheDC’s initial report on Pelosi’s district’s Obamacare waiver recipients, but when TheDC asked to talk to him about it on at least four occasions Wednesday, his secretary said, “he’s in meetings, he’ll call you back.”

Sorian never called back.

Colin Hanna of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative organization that’s launching an effort on Thursday to call for governors and state insurance commissioners nationwide to apply for Obamacare waivers for their states, told TheDC every aspect of Obamacare has a cloud over it because much of its crafting and implementation has happened, and still happens, in the dark.

“This is a bill that was written in secret after secret meetings, jammed through and now many of its supporters are seeking waivers and the same veil of secrecy for exceptions to the law applies as existed in the writing of the law,” Hanna said. “It is a paradigm of unaccountability and lack of transparency.”

The information on Obamacare waivers is shelved deep inside HHS’s website, too. Although it’s there, it’s not easily found. The reason it is difficult to locate is because the Obamacare-created Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO), which handles much of the waiver process, is nestled within the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Haislmaier said it his understanding that the reason CCIIO is under CMS instead of the larger HHS is because the administration tried to “bury stuff in the larger CMS budget and it was kind of hanging out there as a separate office.” Basically, the CMS budget isn’t subject to congressional approval because it’s independent, so the office can get away with things HHS can’t.

Chris Tuthill, an Oklahoma-area weekend talk radio host, told TheDC she spent hours looking for information to provide for her listeners on how they could apply for Obamacare waivers and was shocked when she finally found out it was in the CMS budget. “I’m just amazed that it’s on the CMS website,” Tuthill said. “Get your waiver here, but no link [from HHS’s website]. Why do we have obese children, and all the other links on the left hand side, as I mentioned, but, why not ‘Get your waivers here?’”

The difficulty to locate information on the Obamacare waiver process is affecting some long-time government and political reporters, too, who have been shocked by the scarcity of answers when it comes to the waivers. Mark Lisheron, the Austin bureau chief of nonpartisan news website Texas Watchdog and a reporter for TexasHealthCareReport.org, told TheDC, for example, that his 30-plus years of government reporting wasn’t enough to break through the Obama administration’s HHS maze to find the waiver information.

“This, in terms of healthcare waivers, is a politically hot issue and you would think that if they’re being righteous about it, and they believed in what they were doing, that they would make all of the information about what they’re doing readily available to the public,” Lisheron said. “If a reporter can’t sort through it, an average person is in no way going to be able to figure out what’s going on with waivers or anything else.”