Tag Archives: Robin Lunge

Grüberdämmerung

Ah, Jonathan Gruber, the gift that keeps on taking.

The latest twist in this uncomic opera: Auditor Doug Hoffer has examined Gruber’s invoices for consulting work on behalf of the Shumlin adminstration, and found them seriously wanting.

In Hoffer’s words, his review of documents “raised questions about Dr. Gruber’s billing practices and the State’s monitoring and enforcement of particular contract provisions.” More:

Dr. Gruber’s invoices referred only to “consulting and modeling” and offered no details about specific tasks. In the broadest sense, those three words describe the work performed, but such generalities do not appear to satisfy the intent of the contract.

It’s like taking a math test where you’re asked to show your work, and you turn in a sheet with “WORK” in big letters on an otherwise blank page.

Hoffer further states that top Shumlin officials Robin Lunge and Michael Costa “were aware of the need for more details in the invoices, but approved them nonetheless. … [they] had an obligation to request additional detail from Dr. Gruber, and they failed to do so.”

Gruber’s first and second invoices raise suspicion because each showed the same round number of hours worked (100 for Gruber and 500 for research assistants). Hoffer judges the round figures, and the fact that two invoices totaled exactly the same, “implausible.” He concludes that the administration “ignored the obvious signs that something was amiss.”

To me, this is the real Gruber scandal. The conservative shitfit over a handful of intemperate remarks — made during a period of years in which Gruber must have spoken on the record hundreds of times — was nothing more than political opportunism by the opponents of health care reform. But this?

Even if Gruber was invoicing to the best of his ability, it certainly reveals shoddy management by the Shumlin administration. Which is, unfortunately, of a piece with the administration’s general performance on health care reform. Did they take a relaxed approach to spending money because so much of it came from the federal coffers? Perhaps.

Here’s another fact that reinforces my interpretation. Late last year, Gruber submitted two more invoices. In an email to Hoffer earlier this month, according to VTDigger’s Morgan True, Lunge wrote that the administration was “no longer satisfied with the level of detail provided” in those later invoices.

Why “no longer”? Because Hoffer was examining the invoices and they knew they’d be embarrassed? If there’s another explanation, I’d like to hear it.

There are other problems, as reported by True: Tax documents appear to show that Gruber actually paid his research assistant far less than the amount received from Vermont for the RA’s work. DId he pocket the rest? Did the state’s lax oversight let him get away with it?

I’m a liberal, and I’m strongly in favor of universal access to health care. Our current system is an expensive stinkin’ mess, and no amount of wrongdoing by Gruber or others will convince me that reform is a mistake. But in my book, my fandom only feeds my desire for sound management by those we’ve empowered to enact reform on our behalf, and with our dollars.

The Gruber fiasco makes me wonder about the administration’s oversight of all the other consultancies associated with the reform effort. And, for that matter, its handling of the entire process.

Hoffer has referred his findings to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who says Gruber’s invoicing raises “major questions.” He says he will meet with administration officials to see “what evidence and records are available to justify the billing amount.”

On behalf of health care reform supporters, and those who backed Peter Shumlin because of his promises to institute unversal coverage, all I can say is I hope there are no more shoes to drop. I fear that we’re only just getting our first peek inside the closet.

Here’s something Governor Shumlin should stop saying

Ever since last Thursday’s inaugural ceremonies, Gov. Shumlin has been telling anyone who will listen that he was “saddened” by the presence of protesters. Like other Democrats, he singles out the one protester who crossed the line by singing during the benediction.

He has to highlight that one moron because otherwise, the demonstrators were not disruptive or offensive. They followed the rules of civil protest. The inauguration proceeded as scheduled until the very end.

Of course, what really offends the governor is that they dared to crash his coronation. The Vermont Press Bureau:

“The inauguration is an opportunity where we all say, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, cut out all this party stuff and get to work,’” the governor said. “And I just don’t think that they did their cause… much good by the kind of tactics they employed…”

Or in Brill Building terms: “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To.”

The whingeing is excessive and self-centered. But I’d like to focus on one thing the Governor is saying, over and over again, that hurts his credibility. It goes something like this:

“I was really saddened by what happened yesterday, because I’m as frustrated as anyone with our health care system, and there’s no one that wants to see the goal of universal access as much as I do,” he said.

That’s from Saturday’s Burlington Free Press, but he’s been spouting variations on that theme in other outlets.

And he needs to stop. Now.

For one thing, it’s false. For another, it’s a two-sided statement: Shumlin is trying to emphasize his own political pain and loss — but at the same time, he’s downgrading everyone else’s.

Is there really no one who is more frustrated by Shumlin’s abandonment of single-payer? Is there really no one who more ardently wants to see universal access?

Of course there is.

Start within the administration itself. Are Robin Lunge or Mark Larson less disappointed than Shumlin? How about Anya Rader Wallack? Or Jonathan Gruber, who’s become a national laughingstock and has now lost his best chance to enact single-payer? There must be, at minimum, dozens of staffers and contractors who’ve put their heart and soul into Vermont’s single-payer initiative. That’s not to mention the single-payer advocates like Deb Richter and Peter Sterling, who served on the Governor’s Consumer Advisory Council and had the rug pulled out from under them.

Widening our scope, how about the entire Progressive Party, which put its own gubernatorial ambitions on hold for three straight election cycles in order to give Shumlin a free hand on single-payer? Might they be more frustrated than the Governor?

Which is not to overlook Democrats who’ve fought for single-payer. Maybe ex-Rep. Mike Fisher feels a bit of disappointment after losing his bid for re-election and then the cause he’d worked so hard for.

Finally, let’s not forget the tens of thousands of Vermonters who still don’t have health insurance, and the additional tens of thousands who still struggle to pay their premiums, in spite of the Affordable Care Act’s advancements. They are directly impacted by Shumlin’s decision in ways that he will never, ever be. He’s a millionaire who can afford any kind of health coverage he wants, up to and including concierge medicine from the Mayo Clinic.

That’s a partial list, but a substantial one. I think it’s safe to say that there is at least one person more frustrated and more disappointed than Governor Shumlin.

Whether he intends it or not, the Governor slights the feelings and experiences of all those people  when he claims special status as the number-one victim of single-payer’s demise.

As for what he should say instead, here’s a suggestion:

“My decision not to pursue single-payer health care has caused a lot of anger and frustration, and disappointed a lot of people, including many who have supported me politically. Our inability to move forward on single-payer has brought pain to thousands of Vermonters who are still without health insurance. 

“I apologize to each and every one of them. My commitment to universal access is as strong as ever, and as long as I am Governor, I will strive to advance the cause of universal access to the best of my ability.” 

There. That’s not too hard, is it?

No smoking guns in the Gruber file

Now I know how Neal Goswami’s been spending his spare time lately:

The Vermont Press Bureau obtained nearly 2,400 pages of emails between Jonathan Gruber and state officials that detail the work Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist, has been doing for the administration.

Woof. That’s a lot of emails to wade through. The result of all that work was published in the Sunday edition of the Mitchell Family Organ. (The article is paywalled; if you don’t subscribe, Get Thee To A Library.)

So what did he find? More impolitic comments about stupid voters and conservative pundits? Arrogant pronouncements over how he’s gonna pull the wool over our eyes?

Er, no.

Emails… highlight the administration’s work since the summer preparing a long-awaited financing plan for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed universal, publicly financed health care plan.

… In a July 7 email to Michael Costa, Shumlin’s deputy director of health reform and the tax expert spearheading the administration’s financing plan, Gruber expressed unbridled enthusiasm at the opportunity to help the state craft a single-payer health care plan.

In short, the emails depict a top-shelf policy expert avidly engaged in a very difficult project, and using his economic model to test countless iterations of single-payer.

And seeing Vermont as a ground-breaking opportunity: “I think we have a chance to make history here,” he said in a July email.

Goswami describes a lengthy, painstaking process that seems to validate Gov. Shumlin’s claims that he couldn’t release his plan because it wasn’t ready yet. This was, the emails show, a long, tough slog. Which still continues; reform chief Robin Lunge expressed confidence that the plan would be ready by late December, but only after an all-out effort.

It’s a fascinating read if you’re a policy wonk. But it doesn’t provide provide any new evidence for legitimate attacks on Gruber or single-payer.

Which is not to say there’s no room for illegitimate, partisan attacks:

Many emails that included details of the administration’s plan were redacted, with the administration citing executive privilege.

“Aha!”, I can almost hear Darcie Johnston crying. “Redacted! Cover-up!”

Partisans will certainly look at it that way. Especially since, according to Goswami, the Shumlin administration had an interesting rationale for adding a provision to Gruber’s contract stating that he “may advise the Governor on policy matters.”

That provision was added, not because Gruber would actually provide any policy advice, but simply to lay the foundation for a claim of executive privilege.

Lunge… said the clause in the contract was included to protect her policy advice to the governor. Gruber has not contributed policy advice to the governor, according to Lunge.

Got that? Lunge generated policy ideas… Gruber ran them through his model… and Lunge used his information to shape her policy ideas. But since she had to give her policy ideas to Gruber, his work must be privileged.

It makes sense, but it also provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

And it creates some concerns about government transparency: Lunge told Goswami that “the same provision is also included with other contractors.”

If that’s true, then we ought to be less worried about Jonathan Gruber and single-payer, and more worried about broadening claims of executive privilege.

A head has rolled

Shocking, but not surprising news this morning out of the capitol city. Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz:

Gov. Peter Shumlin has dismissed onetime political rival Doug Racine as secretary of the embattled Agency of Human Services.

“These decisions are difficult, but the governor felt a change in leadership at AHS was needed at this time,” Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said Tuesday morning.

Doug 'n Pete in a happier moment. (Photo from VPR)

Doug ‘n Pete in a happier moment. (Photo from VPR)

Laura Krantz at VTDigger writes it as a Racine departure, not a firing. Which makes me wonder if the last straw was last week’s emergency budget adjustment, with its calls for further cuts in an already-overstretched agency. Maybe Racine stood up for his people, and got shot down for his trouble. I have no inside information on that point, but the timing certainly fits.

Whether a push or a jump, the shock is the suddenness of it all and the fact that the scythe took its first cut at the top level rather than, say, taking a Mark Larson or a Robin Lunge. It’s not surprising because sooner or later someone in state government had to take the fall for Vermont Health Connect’s continued troubles.

I say so not because any one of the three is more or less culpable for the VHC mess, but because Larson and Lunge were more directly involved. And because a cabinet member is a key gubernatorial appointment, this is a more direct reflection on the Governor himself.

But as Heintz points out, the trouble isn’t all health care-related. AHS’ Department of Children and Families has also come in for criticism following the deaths of two young children under its supervision. In that context, Racine was the most relevant target.

Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen will be interim AHS chief, with an appointment through the end of the year.

My take, and I have absolutely no knowledge of how AHS works or doesn’t: It was an almost impossible job. In fact, when Shumlin appointed his chief political rival to the post, I wondered whether it was an honor or an exile. AHS is a big, complicated operation that’s usually overtaxed and underresourced. Racine took the job after years of Jim Douglas-mandated cuts, and the disastrous implementation of Challenges for Change. It was the kind of job that was almost certain to leave Racine with a tainted reputation as a manager, especially with the Governor’s aversion to tax hikes and obsession with cost-cutting. And on top of all that, AHS was home base for health care reform and its myriad pitfalls.

It was a thankless job, and Racine kept at it for almost four years. And did his job largely out of the public spotlight, with a dignity and dedication that speaks well of him.