PharmExec Blog

Playing Spot the Healthcare Lobbyist

National Public Radio has posted an interesting, possibly provocative, but certainly confusing, item on its website.

It’s a photograph taken late last month during the first Congressional hearings on the trillion-dollar healthcare reform legislation. Actually, it’s not just a photograph but a panoramic, four-frame, interactive feature complete with cutesy rollover icons. More importantly, it shows not the 22 members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions who were the presumptive stars of the occasion, but the audience.

Who are these 200 or so people sufficiently interested in the issue at hand to show up in Room 106 at the Dirksen Senate Office Building?

The answer is revealed as your cursor rolls over an icon: These pleasantly innocuous faces in this predominantly female, modestly diverse standing-room-only crowd are, as anyone versed in inside-the-Beltway business would know, lobbyists of one stripe or another. Or, as NPR more politely refers to them in its headline, “healthcare stakeholders.”

The feature’s gimmick is asking readers to identify familiar faces via email for posting on the site. For example, one icon reads: “Katie Pahner, Health Policy Source, Firm’s 2008 Lobbying Income: $1.3 million.” Unfortunately, we’re left in the dark about which companies, professional organizations, advocacy groups, etc., pay Pahner’s firm’s fees.

By the end of the day, the icons were few in number—only a handful of IDs had been made. That might be because to Washington outsiders, not only the faces but the very beings and doings of most lobbyists are nondescript to a remarkable degree. They are peddlers of “influence”—the most elusive of commodities—who, if the mainstream media is to be believed, are forever holding closed-door meetings with politicians, meetings about which they have “no comment” afterward. And they are invariably singled out for blame when one or another piece of legislation or reform comes to dust.

This may help explain the subtle but unmistakable hostility to NPR’s “spot the lobbyist” game. After all, asking for positive identifications is generally the purview of the police department. The implication is that something shady is taking place in 160 Dirksen Senate Office Building and that lobbyists—excuse me, healthcare stakeholders—are, if not perpetrators, at least bystanders. But this game of shining light on the shadiness may make them feel uncharacteristically a little like the victims.

Beginning to attach specific faces and names to the multifarious influence may be the point of this NPR exercise. Greater transparency, in turn, may make the Capitol Hill reporters’ job easier—it may even lead to greater accountability of, and accessibility to, the Katie Pahners of the world. That would be a good thing.

But here’s the confusing part: The lobbyists with the most influence are generally so well known that they require no identification. On Monday the Washington Post ran a hard-hitting investigative piece about the enormous number of new lobbyists hired by insurers, hospitals, medical groups, and drugmakers to lean on the pols during the healthcare debates into which we are about to be plunged. The vast majority of these 350 fresh-faced influence peddlers are either former elected officials or former members of their staff.

The title of this important piece? Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying. The prime example of what the Post refers to as the “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and K Street? Billy Tauzin, head of PhRMA.

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One Comment

  1. cheryl casey
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The other day I met a ‘lobbiest’ contracted by the Indian Health System. This lobbiest had been hired away from a successful non-profit due to his success in gaining federal funding. I ask about the Obama environment towards ‘lobbiests’. The conversation actually was one of reminding me of what exactly a ‘lobbiest’ is. Whether paid or not, a lobbiest is an individual, American citizen, practicing their right to speak to our legislators on topics that effect them directly with regard to law making.
    What an awesome country we have (for now) that allows individuals to have a voice in how our laws are applied and made! Do we really want to see our president make this a travesty? Just as it has been easy to sway the public into blaming the medical manufacturers for the inappropriate use of their products by physicians (physicians with the highest level education in the world on health), is it correct to blame lobbiests (individual americans with a voice) for the poor decisions of our elected and experience legeslators?
    People, the bigger question: Do we want to allow the elimination of one of the most unique and priveledged avenues for we the people to be heard by our government officials? What then would make us any different than Iran?
    Good thing there are phrama lobbiests in our congressional hearings! Else we would all be living with VA health care! Which if we are not careful, is our future!
    And Pharm Exec, how about some fair balance!

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