By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A congressional committee digging into alleged obfuscation surrounding the Affordable Care Act asked health care consultant and Massachusetts Health Connector board member Jonathan Gruber some blunt questions Tuesday about recently publicized comments he made about the federal law.
In a video-taped talk, Gruber previously credited the law’s success in part to the “stupidity of the American voter,” and on another occasion he said taxes on so-called Cadillac health care plans would actually be paid by the insured rather than the insurance companies.
“I behaved badly and I’ll have to live with that, but my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act,” Gruber said, maintaining that he was “conjecturing outside the area of my expertise.” Gruber said he was aiming “to try to make myself seem smarter by demeaning others.”
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said that Gruber had committed a “gaffe” by telling the truth, as Republicans attempted to make Gruber own his remarks.
“Are you stupid?” Issa asked Gruber in his first question.
“I don’t think so, no,” Gruber replied at the hearing, which was carried by CSPAN.
Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, chastised Gruber for his “insulting” remarks and said they were a gift to critics of the controversial 2010 law, which is still in roughly its first year of implementation.
“You wrapped it up with a bow,” said the Maryland Democrat, who also credited Gruber for not avoiding responsibility at the hearing.
Congressman Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, told Gruber the law has led to problems in Massachusetts and among unions that were previously able to secure more generous health coverage because health benefits weren’t taxed.
“Until the Affordable Care Act, health care was not taxed,” Lynch said. He said, “I’ve got these unions saying repeal this thing. Fortunately for me, I voted against it.”
During public debate over the law in 2009, Gruber argued the so-called “Cadillac tax” on expensive health plans would encourage health costs to go down and wages to increase. On Tuesday Gruber told Lynch, a former union president, that “there is no reason that these employers can’t provide affordable and comprehensive insurance.”
In his last hearing as chairman of the oversight committee, Issa also quizzed Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner about misleading data about ACA enrollment, which erroneously included about 400,000 dental plans along with the more than 6 million health care plans.
Tavenner said the faulty data was an “inadvertent” and “inexcusable mistake,” and told Cummings, “I do not believe anyone tried to deceive the American people.”
Issa said once his committee staff was finally able to open spreadsheets from the administration it “took a staffer 20 minutes to find the error.”
“If the administration was going to fudge it, I certainly hope they would not be so amateurish,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from Washington D.C.
Other Democrats used their time drawing out favorable facts and figures from the witnesses, including New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney who concluded, “I think this is all good news for the health care consumer.”
Republicans inquired about the basis for Gruber’s statements about the benefits of hiding aspects of the law from the public and encountered several memory lapses from their witness.
“I honestly do not recall,” Gruber said to a question about whether the Obama administration discussed with him the need to avoid labeling aspects of the bill as taxes. On several occasions, Gruber deferred to his lawyer when members of the committee asked for documents related to his work as a consultant helping to craft the law.
Gruber said he went to one meeting with President Barack Obama and said he went to one meeting with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who signed the 2006 health reform law that served as a basis for the federal version. Gruber’s bio at MIT, where he is a professor, describes him as a “key architect” of Romneycare and a “technical consultant” on Obamacare.
After Republican members suggested the potential use of a subpoena to obtain documents from Gruber, Virginia Democratic Congressman Gerald Connolly suggested the committee might also subpoena documents dating back to Gruber’s work with the Romney administration.
“As far as I can tell we are here today to beat up on Jonathan Gruber” for “stupid” comments and “grill” Tavenner, Cummings said soon after the hearing’s 9:30 a.m. start.
As the hearing continued into the afternoon, Congressman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, characterized Gruber’s testimony as “contrived,” “orchestrated” and “not transparent.”
Massachusetts Senate Republicans last week called for Gruber’s resignation or “immediate removal” from the Massachusetts Health Connector board. In November, Gruber declined comment at a board meeting when reporters asked him about his comments.
Patrick administration officials say the governor is focused on implementing the ACA and say that case law only allows the governor to remove board members for “cause” and the courts have ruled that improper statements do not constitute cause.