Obamacare architects preside over forthcoming CBO cost analysis

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Betsi Fores The Daily Caller News Foundation
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As the Congressional Budget Office prepares to release its cost analysis report on the Affordable Care Act, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned that the woman who helped create the statistical models used to score Obamacare has strong ties to the White House as well as the president’s signature legislation.

The Daily Caller previously reported that Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin was formerly a Department of Health and Human Services official under the Obama administration, and that she had personally donated more than $26,000 to Democratic politicians and campaign committees, with $2,300 of that going to President Obama in 2008. (RELATED: CBO hires Obamacare advocate to provide ‘objective’ health care budget numbers)

Also in 2008, Buntin was cited as an “Obama Spokeswoman,” when she delivered a speech to health industry insiders to “learn more about the Obama/Biden health care plan.” The speech stressed the cost effectiveness of passing the then-candidates’ plan, which would pay for the “$50 – $65 billion health care reform effort by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for Americans earning more than $250,000 per year and retaining the estate tax at its 2009 level.”

Later, between the years 2009 and 2010, the White House visitors log shows Buntin visited eight times, with one of those occasions being with Vice President Joe Biden.

Buntin, now the deputy assistant director of the CBO’s Health Services Department, came to the post in the middle of 2011.

Employees “are prohibited from participating in partisan political activity if such participation would identify or appear to identify CBO with a candidate, campaign, or cause,” the CBO told TheDC News Foundation in an email.

A source with knowledge of internal CBO matters told TheDC News Foundation that after Buntin’s prior campaign contributions were reported by The Daily Caller, CBO director Doug Elmendorf — a donor to Democratic candidates himself — lobbied several former CBO directors in an effort to influence senators who saw Buntin’s conflicts of interest as grounds for her termination. Buntin has not made a publicly-disclosed political donation during her time with the CBO.

The CBO is the non-partisan arm of Congress tasked with providing budget analyses and economic data to Congress. A 2005 report from the Congressional Research Service, another non-partisan agency, said CBO appointees are to be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of his [or her] fitness to perform his [or her] duties.”

“In preparing its cost estimates and other analyses, CBO uses data and other information from a wide variety of sources, consults with outside experts representing a variety of perspectives, applies a rigorous internal review process that involves multiple people at different levels of the organization, and enforces strict rules to prevent conflicts of interest,” Elmendorf told The Daily Caller in a phone call, adding, “We have the utmost confidence in the objectivity of the work that CBO produces.”

Prior to coming to the CBO, Buntin worked in the Department of Health and Human Services to implement Obamacare-related information technologies and record-keeping procedures at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. As the office’s director of economic analysis and modeling, Buntin provided the Obama administration with statistics showing how best to implement a nationwide system of electronic health records.

Bunton earned her Ph.D. in health policy at Harvard University while David Cutler, a top Obama adviser, CBO adviser and health economist, was an economics professor in the Department of Economics and the Kennedy School of Government.

Together, the two crafted a health care policy paper for the progressive Center for American Progress think tank in 2009, immediately prior to Obamacare’s passage. The paper, titled “The Two Trillion Dollar Solution: Saving Money by Modernizing Health Care,” suggested a health care reform system almost identical to the legislation that passed months later.

The policy made a “best guess” that cost-cutting measures would reduce government spending by upwards of $200 billion over ten years.

In their paper, Buntin and Cutler predicted that their health care system would create $1.5 trillion in federal government savings over the next decade.

Cutler was appointed to work in the Obama administration in 2009. “Outside academia, Cutler has served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and on the National Economic Council,” the Harvard Crimson reported, “in addition to advising both Bill Bradley’s and John Kerry’s presidential bids. He has been consulting with Obama since at least April 2007.”

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Cutler argued that Obamacare would cut $600 billion in costs over its first ten years, citing the same strategy and tactics he and Buntin laid out in their 2009 policy paper.

Health care reform, he wrote, is “viewed negatively because official scorekeepers do not believe anything on this list other than reducing prices will save much money. The Congressional Budget Office has consistently estimated that policies built around changing incentives and thus encouraging more efficient care will not have any effect on cost trends.”

“My own calculations, mirrored by other observers and a host of business and provider groups, suggest that the reforms will save nearly $600 billion over the next decade and even more in the subsequent one,” Cutler added. He drew those conclusions using cost models that he and Buntin created at Harvard.

Federal Elections Commission records show that Cutler has also been a Democratic donor. He contributed $500 to President Obama’s campaign in 2008.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly listed Jonathan Gruber — also a Democratic donor and health care economist — as Buntin’s predecessor at the CBO. He was a member of the CBO’s long term modeling advisory group.

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Betsi Fores