Jonathan Blum, the administration official at the center of a growing flap over alleged efforts to “muzzle— insurance companies critical of Democratic health care reform efforts, is a former senior aide to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — who originally asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to investigate the companies critical of his bill.
Blum, who worked on the Finance Committee on Medicare and Medicaid issues, was appointed by President Barack Obama as acting director of CMS’ Center for Drug and Health Plan Choices this spring. Prior to taking the directorship, he also acted as a health care policy adviser on Obama’s transition team.
Baucus had asked the CMS to investigate a mailer by insurance giant Humana to senior citizens the company insures. In the mailer, Humana warned that Democratic plans to reform health care could result in cuts to their benefits, a claim that Baucus argued was a disingenuous effort to scare seniors. At Blum’s direction, the CMS launched an investigation and sent Humana a letter warning the company to halt further mailings.
Normally staid Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose home state is also home to Humana’s corporate headquarters, harshly criticized the investigation, accusing “a particular Senator— of conspiring with the CMS to gag insurers and limit their First Amendment rights.
“It appears that a particular Senator has encouraged the administration to use its powers to clamp down on an opponent of the administration’s health care policy. What’s more, the administration snapped to attention at the Senator’s request. It followed the Senator’s advice, and almost immediately the government clamped down on a private health care company in my home state that had been sharing its concerns about the administration’s health care proposal with seniors on Medicare,— McConnell said in an unusually angry floor statement Wednesday morning.
“This is so clearly an outrage it’s hard to believe anyone thought it would go unnoticed. For explaining to seniors how legislation might affect them, the federal government has now issued a gag order on that company, and any other company that communicates with clients on the issue, telling them to shut up — or else,— he added.
At this point, McConnell is mostly lobbing rhetoric and not taking official action. McConnell’s office has asked the CMS for an explanation of why it decided to take action against Humana and to justify its decision to attempt to halt the company’s mailers. And although Republicans have thus far refused to discuss what further steps they may take if CMS does not provide them with answers, they did say that no option has been taken off the table — including requesting an investigation by the Department of Justice or the Senate Ethics Committee.
A senior Democratic aide defended Blum’s decision and maintained that Humana’s claims in its mailer were inaccurate.
“This is about doing what's right for seniors, not about politics,— the aide said. “Mr. Blum wisely took action because this information was wrong and designed to mislead seniors. Communications between seniors and their insurance companies should be about how their plan works, not to drive a lobbying operation. Humana has a fiduciary relationship with Medicare and their elderly customers and should not be leveraging their relationship with their Medicare beneficiaries for a cheap lobbying hit job. Humana has plenty of outlets to express their view of potential legislation — they hire armies of lobbyists. There are zero changes to the benefits that Medicare participants are entitled to under the law in this bill and Humana shouldn't pretend otherwise.—
Democrats also pointed out that McConnell has significant ties to Humana — for instance, his chief of staff, Kyle Simmons, previously worked for the company as its communications director, and the corporation’s executives have been some of the top donors to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. Additionally, according to opensecrets.org, Humana ranks among the top 10 contributors to McConnell’s campaign committee and leadership political action committee, with the two political organs taking in a combined $98,652 from the company since 1989.
A Republican aide, however, argued that ultimately the GOP’s concerns are not about Humana specifically — or, at this point, Blum — but rather what Republicans maintain appears to be an abuse of power by the administration and Baucus. “We’re a far cry from alleging this guy is a dirty player,— the aide said, adding that at this point “this is [about] the administration, which has the full force of law, imposing an arbitrary limit on what you can say.—