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Bush Advisor Could Profit on Proposals, Group Says


A key figure in the development of George W. Bush's Medicare reform plan serves on the boards of directors of eight health care and medical companies that could profit from the Republican presidential nominee's proposals, a government watchdog group charged Thursday.

The Bush advisor, Dr. Gail R. Wilensky, also holds more than $10 million in stock options--the net value was not immediately available--from those companies, leading to further questions about a possible conflict of interest.

Frank Clemente, director of Congress Watch, contrasted Wilensky's position with that of Bush running mate Dick Cheney, who agreed to forgo more than $3 million in stock options when he left Halliburton Co. to join the Republican ticket.

"In Wilensky's case, she is already shaping policy that could directly benefit her personal finances," said Clemente, whose organization is part of the Public Citizen grass-roots advocacy group founded in 1971 by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

Clemente described Wilensky as a contender for secretary of Health and Human Services in a Bush administration.

Wilensky bristled at the charges, arguing that she has been open about her corporate affiliations, which earn her about $200,000 a year, and avoids lobbying government bodies on behalf of the firms. Her corporate role, she said, reflects her expertise in health issues.

Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, another watchdog group, downplayed the conflict of interest, pointing out that ultimately policy decisions are up to Bush, not his advisors.

But he said the issue points up one of the ongoing gray areas of public service: How high do you make the wall between private sector and public service?

"You don't become a top advisor to a presidential candidate having no experience in the area that you're advising," he said. "On the one hand, it would seem that she wouldn't be able to forget where her bread is buttered. On the other hand, there are probably advisors to current and former candidates for president that have similar ties to other industries that have performed their consultant jobs without bias."

Among the companies with which Wilensky is affiliated are United Health Group, a Minnesota-based firm that oversees HMOs and other health services; Advanced Tissue Sciences of La Jolla, Calif., a biotech firm engaged in stem cell research; and Manor Care, an Ohio-based operator of about 350 nursing homes, assisted-living centers and outpatient facilities, mostly in the Midwest.

"I really resent the impugning of my integrity," said Wilensky, a senior fellow at Project HOPE, a nonprofit Virginia-based international health advocacy group. "I have lived what I think is a very open and above-board existence."

Wilensky was a domestic policy advisor to former President Bush and now chairs the federal Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare issues, including reimbursement levels for Medicare programs.

That role also drew fire from Public Citizen, which questioned the appropriateness of Wilensky advising Congress on reimbursement rates for firms in which she has a stake.

Dan Bartlett, a Bush spokesman in Austin, Texas, dismissed what he called "an assertion by a left-leaning group that supports more government control of health care."

He said Wilensky has not hidden her roles in the companies, and no red flags had been raised by the General Accounting Office or Congressional representatives that her directorships might taint her position as a government advisor.

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