WASHINGTON — Invoking an argument used by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has turned down a request from a watchdog group for a list of health industry executives who have visited the White House to discuss the massive healthcare overhaul.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the Secret Service asking about visits from 18 executives representing health insurers, drug makers, doctors and other players in the debate. The group wants the material in order to gauge the influence of those executives in crafting a new healthcare policy.
The Secret Service sent a reply stating that documents revealing the frequency of such visits were considered presidential records exempt from public disclosure laws. The agency also said it was advised by the Justice Department that the Secret Service was within its rights to withhold the information because of the "presidential communications privilege."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics said it would file suit against the Obama administration as early as today.
The group already has sued the administration over its failure to release details about visits from coal industry executives.
A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said, "We are reviewing our policy on access to visitor logs and related litigation."
As a candidate, President Obama vowed that in devising a healthcare bill he would invite in TV cameras -- specifically C-SPAN -- so that Americans could have a window into negotiations that normally play out behind closed doors.
Having promised transparency, the administration should be willing to disclose who it is consulting in shaping healthcare policy, said an attorney for the citizens' group. In its letter requesting the records, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics asked about visits from Billy Tauzin, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans; William Weldon, chairman and chief executive of Johnson & Johnson; and J. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Assn., among others.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Anne Weismann, the group's chief counsel. Obama is relying on a legal argument that "continues one of the bad, anti-transparency, pro-secrecy approaches that the Bush administration had taken. And it seems completely at odds with the president's commitment . . . to bring a new level of transparency to his government."
PhRMA, which represents the nation's drug companies, said it had taken part in two meetings with senior White House officials in the Roosevelt Room. Participants, according to Tauzin, included White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, along with the CEOs of some major drug companies. Both meetings were closed to the public.
In an interview, Tauzin said most of the "real negotiations" took place with the Senate Finance Committee.
At its meetings with the White House, the drug industry reported on progress made with the Senate and got a briefing from Obama officials "about how they saw" healthcare reform unfolding, Tauzin said.