We­bMD spoke kindly about Oba­macare, got mil­lions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCELHATTON

Two months be­fore en­roll­ment be­gan in the Oba­macare ex­changes, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s top health care of­fi­cial heaped praise on We­bMd for launch­ing an online re­source to help Amer­i­cans nav­i­gate the com­plex law.

The con­sumer health care site had the oc­ca­sional nice thing to say about Oba­macare, too. In one ar­ti­cle, it pre­dicted doc­tors might pick up more pa­tients and crowed in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “7 Sur­pris­ing Things About the Af­ford­able Care Act” that many con­sumers al­ready had re­ceived insurance re­funds un­der the law.

But what nei­ther Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Kath­leen Se­be­lius nor We­bMd men­tioned at the time was that the com­pany, which mil­lions of Amer­i­cans reg­u­larly read for health news, also stood to earn mil­lions of dol­lars from a fed­eral con­tract to teach doc­tors about Oba­macare.

The con­tract doc­u­ments, re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times, re­ward We­bMD hand­somely. For in­stance, the fee sched­ule of­fers dozens of prod­ucts, in­clud­ing:

As much as $126,826 for a sin­gle 5,000-word re­view ar­ti­cle on sci­en­tific ad­vances in a clin­i­cal topic.

Up to $68,916 for a four-minute video from an opin­ion spe­cial­ist.

More than $140,000 for an eightques­tion online quiz.

We­bMD says it doesn’t be­lieve it had an obli­ga­tion to dis­close to its broad con­sumer base its $4.8 mil­lion con­tract with the gov­ern­ment. The com­pany says the con­tract, while awarded to We­bMd, went through its Med­scape plat­form, which pro­vides con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion to doc­tors in a pass­word-pro­tected por­tal and is run in­de­pen­dently from We­bMd’s news op­er­a­tion. But a key se­na­tor dis­agrees. Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, Iowa Repub­li­can, told The Wash­ing­ton Times that We­bMD’s sta­tus as an Oba­macare con­trac­tor mer­its more dis­clo­sure.

“Dis­clo­sure and trans­parency would be a good prac­tice for any re­cip­i­ent of fed­eral fund­ing to pro­mote the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s health care plan,” said Mr. Grass­ley, an in­flu­en­tial mem­ber of the Se­nate Fi­nance and Bud­get com­mit­tees.

“Even if cer­tain con­tent is not pro­duced with fed­eral fund­ing, but the same com­pany takes fed­eral gov­ern­ment money to pro­duce other ma­te­ri­als, con­sumers would be bet­ter-in­formed by know­ing the fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ships,” the se­na­tor said.

Be­yond the con­tract, there are other signs of close­ness be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion and We­bMD.

When the web­site an­nounced its online por­tal in Au­gust, Mrs. Se­be­lius pro­vided a quote for the com­pany’s press re­lease say­ing the Web page would ed­u­cate con­sumers and help “im­prove the qual­ity of health­care for mil­lions of peo­ple across our na­tion.”

Weeks later, the com­pany re­ceived a $4.8 mil­lion task or­der on an ex­ist­ing con­tract from the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Med­i­caid Ser­vices to ed­u­cate health care pro­fes­sion­als about parts of Oba­macare, records and in­ter­views show.

We­bMD says the con­tract is en­tirely sep­a­rate from the com­pany’s news op­er­a­tion, which has pub­lished both pos­i­tive and crit­i­cal ar­ti­cles about the health care law.

“We are a news and in­for­ma­tion com­pany that is sim­i­lar to news­pa­pers, tele­vi­sion news and other news sources that main­tain strict ed­i­to­rial con­trols,” said We­bMD spokes­woman Kather­ine Hahn. “In fact, our ed­i­to­rial team has won mul­ti­ple awards for the qual­ity of their jour­nal­ism. Our ed­i­to­rial group is a com­pletely sep­a­rate part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion than the group that works on spon­sored pro­grams.”

Still, few if any news out­lets earn mil­lions of dol­lars in train­ing fees from the gov­ern­ment on topics they cover, putting We­bMD in a unique spot in the me­dia land­scape as it nav­i­gates not only po­ten­tial con­flicts but also the ap­pear­ance of con­flicts.

The two projects have sim­i­lar names. The online por­tal praised by Mrs. Se­be­lius is known as the Health­care Re­form Center, which of­fi­cials say is dif­fer­ent from the paid ed­u­ca­tion project, known as Health­care Re­form Ed­u­ca­tional Ini­tia­tive.

While We­bMD said its pre­sen­ta­tions to doc­tors spon­sored by CMS are al­ways dis­closed, find­ing those dis­clo­sures re­quires reg­is­ter­ing on the Med­scape site, then click­ing on spe­cific online videos and other pre­sen­ta­tions backed by CMS. CMS of­fi­cials de­fended the con­tract. “As part of our broad out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts that we have con­ducted across CMS pro­grams for years,

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