The political battle over health-care reform is waged largely with numbers, and few number-crunchers have shaped the debate as much as the Lewin Group, a consulting firm whose research has been widely cited by opponents of a public insurance option.
To Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House Republican whip, it is 'the nonpartisan Lewin Group.' To Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, it is an 'independent research firm.' To Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the second-ranking Republican on the pivotal Finance Committee, it is 'well known as one of the most nonpartisan groups in the country.'
But how independent is the Lewin group?
Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation's largest insurers.
More specifically, the Lewin Group is part of Ingenix, a UnitedHealth subsidiary that was accused by the New York attorney general and the American Medical Association of helping insurers shift medical expenses to consumers by distributing skewed data. Ingenix supplied UnitedHealth and other insurers with data that allegedly understated the 'reasonable and customary' doctor fees that insurers use to determine how much they will reimburse consumers for out-of-network care.
In January, UnitedHealth agreed to a $50 million settlement with the New York attorney general and a $350 million settlement with the AMA, covering conduct going back as far as 1994.
Ingenix's chief executive, Andrew Slavitt, said the company's data was never biased, but Ingenix nonetheless agreed to exit that particular line of business. 'The data didn't have the appearance of independence that's necessary for it to be useful,' Slavitt said.
Lewin Group Vice President John Sheils said his firm had nothing to do with the Ingenix reimbursement data. Lewin has gone through 'a terribly difficult adjustment' since it was bought by UnitedHealth in 2007, he said, because the corporate ownership 'does create the appearance of a conflict of interest.'
'It hasn't affected . . . the work we do, and I think people who know me know that I am not a good liar,' Sheils said.
Is it only an appearance of conflict, and how objective is the Lewin Group's work?
Lewin's clients include the government and groups with a variety of perspectives, including the Commonwealth Fund and the Heritage Foundation. A February report by the firm contained information that could be used to argue for a national system known as single-payer, the approach most threatening to insurers, Sheils noted.
But not all of Lewin's reports see the light of day. 'Let's just say, sometimes studies come out that don't show exactly what the client wants to see. And in those instances, they have [the] option to bury the study,' Sheils said.
So, in summary, a group providing ostensibly "independent" data and opinions about an important health care policy debate is actually a subsidiary of a commercial managed care organization/ health care insurance company which clearly has vested interests in certain policy options. While the consulting group apparently struggles to be objective, its top leader reported that is fashions its reports at the behest of its clients, and that clients can "bury" reports that offend them, possibly because they do not serve their vested interests.
It is not surprising that participants in the current, noisy debate about health care reform, like many other health policy debates, have vested interests, and that their positions are likely to promote these interests. However, what should at least be disturbing is how often those with vested interests try to appear to be disinterested and independent. Should we trust "independent" voices that actually are conflicted, or those who cite "independent" views that actually come from interested parties?
By the way, we first posted about the Lewin Group's actual status as an Ingenix, and hence UnitedHealth subsidiary here in January, 2009, and first posted about how its contribution to the current health care reform debate was being touted as independent here in April, 2009. That a news organization with the status of the Washington Post is now picking up this story suggests a little optimism that the anechoic effect might be weakening.