Give Us Those Old Time Conflcts of Interest: Stephen Parente, Key Opinion Leader for UnitedHealth and Redeemer of Former CEO William McGuire to Assistant Secretary of HHS

This latest revolving door case echoes scandals of long ago.

Background: CEO Dr William McGuire and the UnitedHealth Affair

A long time ago,in a galaxy far, far away, actually, from 2006 through 2008, we posted frequently about shenanigans at huge for-profit health insurance/ managed care company UnitedHealth.  We often discussed the patient-unfriendliness of its policies and processes (look here), despite its apparently high-minded past mission statements and public relations, as a function of its persistently bad leadership.

In 2008, we wrote....  One hypothesis is that UHG has trouble adhering to its idealistic mission because of the shortcomings of its leadership.The story of the fall of its recent CEO, Dr William McGuire, was strikingly instructive. As we have previously discussed, (see these posts here, here, and here from 2006 with links backward) Dr McGuire received outrageously lavish remuneration, which stood in stark contrast to the previous UHG mission's pledge to "make health care more affordable."

Controversy has swirled over the timing of huge stock option grants given to Dr McGuire (see post here), leading to his resignation in October, 2006 (see post here). More recently, McGuire agreed to pay back some of those options, although that would reportedly leave him with more than $800 million worth of them (see post here).

Later, Dr McGuire paid $30 million to settle a class action lawsuit over these stock options, and agreed to return 3.68 million stock options to the company.  At the time this was one of the largest cash settlements produced by a class-action lawsuit over financial instruments.  There was supposedly a criminal investigation of the case ongoing in 2008, but I cannot find any record that it produced indictments or convictions.

So Dr McGuire was able to escape this situation with relative impunity.  Then, despite those tributions, we noted that Mr McGuire, however, was quickly offered a bit of redemption. In particular, at the same time, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, Dr McGuire seems to have found ways to keep busy,

The University of Minnesota is courting William McGuire, the health insurance executive who lost his job in a stock options scandal, as "executive in residence" at its business school.

Stephen Parente, director of the Medical Industry Leadership Institute in the Carlson School of Management, said the school had given him the go-ahead to explore the idea with McGuire, former chief executive of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group.

'We are courting him to be an executive-in-residence at Carlson,' Parente said, adding that McGuire's immense experience in health care is what appealed to the university.

Parente said he first reached out to McGuire in August 2007, inviting him to be the keynote speaker at an invitation-only event attended by 70 to 80 guests at the Lafayette Club in Minnetonka Beach. The subject of McGuire's talk was the future of health care.
McGuire hit familiar themes during the hourlong speech, including the need for universal access to health care and the need to track the quality of care by physicians and to pay them accordingly.

Parente said his approach to McGuire was along the lines of: 'We don't really care about the stock options. You know stuff. Tell us what you think.'

Since then, McGuire has attended two seminars at the Carlson school, including one where he arrived unannounced.

There was some discussion within the school, Parente said, on whether it was appropriate to engage McGuire, given the lawsuits and investigations in which he was embroiled. The conclusion was that it was.

'It's one thing if you're bringing in a criminal to speak. But if someone's under investigation, that's fair game,' he said.

Since then, McGuire has acted as "ad hoc kitchen-cabinet adviser" to him, Parente said.

In June, when Parente presented a paper titled 'Is Consumerism at Odds with Prevention?' at the American Society of Health Economics at Duke University, he listed McGuire as one of six co-authors.


At the time, we thought it was all pretty outrageous.  However, we could not find out why the business school in general, and Mr Parente in particular was so enamored of Dr McGuire despite his checkered past.

Now nine years later, and only out of the investigative reporting inspired by the Trump regime was this explained in retrospect.

Mr Parente Transits the Revolving Door from the Medical Industry Leadership Institute (MILI) to the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) 

As we discussed briefly in October, 2017, as briefly reported within a larger August, 2017 ProPublica report on the many patients moving from industry to the Trump regime, Mr Parente was nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for planning and evaluation.  That article listed him as coming from a position as Principal, Health Systems Innovation Network LLC, but did not mention the Medical Industry Leadership Group. 

This DHHS position is important, as explained in an October 30, 2017 Politico article. .

In his role as assistant secretary, Parente would be the 'principal advisor' to the HHS secretary on policy development and 'responsible for major activities in policy coordination, legislation development, strategic planning, policy research, evaluation, and economic analysis,' according to HHS' website. The job, known as ASPE, has been a springboard for policy leaders; it was filled by Bobby Jindal, the future Louisiana governor, and Ben Sasse, the future Nebraska senator, during the George W. Bush administration.

Moreover, the article also explained that Mr Parente's financial relationships and previous commercial work extended far beyond Health Systems Innovation LLC. 

Parente, a 52-year-old economist, has long maintained close ties both to UnitedHealth and to other insurers. A specialist in health care finance, he holds an academic chair at the university called the Minnesota Insurance Industry Endowed Chair. It is funded by Thrivent Financial and Securian Financial Group, which offer a variety of insurance products. UnitedHealth in 2010 made a five-year, $1 million gift to his center, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota also was one of five corporate donors that made $30,000 annual gifts to Parente’s academic center.

'Without the support of corporations, MILI would not have evolved beyond [the] start-up stage,' Parente said in a 2015 interview with his business school’s magazine.

Beyond the university, Parente has served as the chairman of the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit research consortium backed by UnitedHealth, Aetna, Humana and Kaiser Permanente. Parente also has a private consulting business that has done work for UnitedHealth and other health care organizations.

In addition,

Parente’s longtime center is intended to bring together academics and the industry and help foster career opportunities for students, school officials say. The center supports research into industry challenges, and students attend lectures taught by executives at UnitedHealth and other industry companies. 'MILI offers national and international firms access to the rigorous intellectual community we have established,' the center’s website touts.

According to a University of Minnesota department directory, Parente is still listed as the director of the small center, which he helped launch more than a decade ago and had led since 2006. School officials say he is no longer leading the center. The center also has a staffer who handles administrative duties, but the institute has been viewed as 'a one-man shop' run by Parente for years, according to two individuals who have knowledge of its operations. Eight other people, three of whom either previously worked for UnitedHealth or currently work there, are listed as part-time instructors at MILI.

Some experts interviewed by Politico explained the importance of Mr Parente's arrangements with UnitedHealth.

'I absolutely think there’s a concern here,' said Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive who’s now a consumer advocate.

Given Parente’s years of work with the insurance industry, 'I would imagine that he would certainly have a bias toward the current model of health insurers,' Potter added.

Potter, a frequent critic of the insurance industry who once ran Cigna’s communications, said that the industry’s gifts to universities are 'widespread' and part of a broader strategy to encourage pro-industry research. [Insurers] absolutely want to make sure that their interests are protected, and they are seen by this administration as … effective and efficient and a crucial part of the health care system,' Potter said.


In other words, it is likely that Mr Parente and his institute were funded as part of a systematic stealth health policy advocacy campaign by UnitedHealth.  Furthermore, it is likely that Mr Parente, especially given that he was a paid consultant to UnitedHealth, functioned as a key opinion leader for it, especially concerned with advocating not for UnitedHealth's products, as many health care professional key opinion leaders do for drug, device and biotechnology companies, but for UnitedHealth's policies.

It seems that Mr Parente has been recently advocating for policies aligned with UnitedHealth, viz

UnitedHealth, like all insurers, also is heavily affected by the rules and regulations published by HHS, which can be informed by the analysis conducted by the office Parente has been nominated to run. As an academic, Parente has played a role in the Obamacare fight, offering supportive analysis of separate proposals by House Speaker Paul Ryan and then-Rep. Tom Price to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He’s also criticized the law as too costly and warned that it would effectively lead to an insurance market death spiral. 'The autopsy will show that [Obamacare] died from a lack of affordability, leaving behind millions of Americans who were sold a bill of goods,' Parente wrote in a 2014 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, in which he predicted that 40 million Americans would be uninsured by 2024. Since that article, the number of uninsured has fallen from 36 million in 2014 to about 28 million this year.

And UnitedHealth seemed to have added to the center's financial pot in hopes of further cementing Mr Parente's relationship with the company

Five months after President Donald Trump nominated Stephen Parente to be an assistant secretary for Health and Human Services, the nation's largest health insurer quietly gave a $1.2 million gift to a tiny academic research center that Parente helped found and served as director over the past decade.

Discussion

So here is just the latest embellishment in the march of people transiting the revolving door from health care corporations, and related firms, such as lobbying firms, the the executive branch during the Trump administration. 




Fortunately, good investigative journalists have looked more deeply into this cases, showcasing its more interesting aspects.  First, Mr Parente was not simply a corporate executive moving to the executive branch where he would be able to influence the fortunes of his former corporation.  Mr Parente was apparently a distinguished academic in a business school.  However  he had conflicts of interest, albeit not obvious ones.  These were similar to those affecting many health care academics, as we have frequently discussed.  Making his conflicts inapparent may have allowed him to more effectively advocate for his commercial colleagues in the guise of a disinterested academic.  This is the same game many health care professionals and academics have played (that of the key opinion leader), although many more in the apparent service of pharmaceutical and device marketing than in the service of corporate policy goals.  Nonetheless, such marketing or public relations, carried on by apparently unbiased academics who may really be paid, directly or indirectly, by corporate marketing or public relations departments, is much more insidious and deceptive than marketing or public relations carried out by identifiable corporate spokespeople. 

And now one of these deceptive corporate advocates is already in the executive branch, and perhaps on his way to an even more influential role.

This argues again for the importance of the dangers presented by the web of conflicts of interest that now drapes over medicine, health care, the government, and it seems the whole society.   I say again that all conflictis of interest affecting any medical, health care, or health policy decision makers should be revealed in detail, and most ought to be banned. 

This case also again argues for paying attention to the problem of the revolving door.  As we have said all too many times,...   The continuing egregiousness of the revolving door in health care shows how health care leadership can play mutually beneficial games, regardless of the their effects on patients' and the public's health.  Once again, true health care reform would cut the ties between government and corporate leaders and their cronies that have lead to government of, for and by corporate executives rather than the people at large.

Finally, this case argues that impunity, especially of top health care (and other leaders) has consequences.  One wonders what might have happened had Dr McGuire suffered much more severe negative consequences after the stock backdating case.  Mr Parente would not have been able to get further into the graces of UnitedHealth by giving a distinguisehd academic position to its apparently disgraced former CEO.  Maybe Mr Parente's career trajectory would have been different.  Who knows?  But still.... If we do not make health care leaders accountable for patients' and the public's health, leaving them free to put self-enrichment first, all our health will be further impoverished.