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Reporter finds identifying health policy influencers is not a simple task Date: 11/06/19

Paige Winfield

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

In August, my editor asked me to write an edition of my Health 202 newsletter about who was advising the top Democratic presidential campaigns on health policy. I thought it would be an easy task. Just ask the campaigns, right? Hardly.

I had no idea how much work it would be to identify the names of people advising the campaigns, much less their specific role. The campaigns were all reticent to share any specifics when I reached out to their spokespeople. Some ignored me. Others responded, but only to insist that the candidate was the key force behind all policies and advisers played only a secondary role. None of the campaigns provided me with any names.

But I persisted because I too was convinced that a behind-the-scenes look at the health policy influencers would be deeply interesting – particularly because the Democratic primary has been marked by differences over how to bring the country to universal health coverage. Here’s how I went about writing the piece:

1. I identified five top-polling campaigns to focus on: Former vice president Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

I emailed all their spokespeople to ask who was working inside the campaign – or advising it from the outside – on health policy proposals. Most of the candidates have released proposals to expand Medicare or improve rural or maternal health, so I specifically asked who worked on those policies.

I received no concrete information. Of all the campaigns, Buttigieg’s was the most responsive. But even then, they refused to share any names with me.

“Our policy is driven by Pete,” Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Buttigieg, emailed me. “We have a policy staff, of course, but the idea and vision behind Medicare for All Who Want It comes from Pete.”

2. I consulted with colleagues and looked for online references to past and current health-care staffers.

I realized I’d have to do this the hard way: By digging for information on my own. I started by asking some of the Post’s campaign reporters if they knew the names of health policy advisers. They didn’t. I also asked whether the names of campaign staff are publicly available on any filings required by the Federal Election Commission – and I was told they’re not, although I didn’t research this question extensively.

I figured the senators running for president would have relied heavily on their Senate staff for policy ideas. So I searched news stories and Legistorm for the names of staffers for Sanders, Harris and Warren. This helped me to start an initial list of names.

For example, I learned that Harris’s chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, had played a central role in writing the campaign’s unique version of Medicare-for-all. I also identified Lori Kearns, Marissa Barrera and Kathryn Van Haste as top Senate staffers for Sanders who helped with his Medicare-for-all bills. (As a side note, Sanders’ presidential team never responded to a single one of my emails).

3. I talked to four people with close connections to Democratic politics.

This is where I really started getting somewhere. I won’t disclose the names of these four folks, since our conversations were on background, but suffice to say they’re widely regarded as top experts on health-care policy and have backgrounds working for Democratic campaigns or administrations.

When I agreed with these four people that our conversations would be on background, they were willing to give me lots of intelligence about who was helping each of the campaigns. One of the people was hesitant to help me at first but, as we continued to talk on the phone, he agreed to confirm names for me. Through this process of phone conversations and emails, I was able to refine the list until I was relatively confident it was accurate.

4. I went back to the campaigns with names and asked them to confirm.

Once I had actual names to run past the spokespeople, they were more willing to play ball. I think it also helped that I told them the piece would be published no matter what. Some campaigns provided more clarity about the role a particular adviser or staffer had played – and some even added more names to my list. I was also able to get direct confirmation from some of the outside, unpaid advisers that they were helping particular campaigns.

My takeaway: Through my experience writing this story, I gained a better understanding of the fears within political campaigns.

The campaigns are so intent on keeping the focus on the candidate that they’re reluctant to disclose any specifics about who is helping write policy and how much they contributed. This seems a little silly to me, as it’s a given that any public figure has staff behind them helping with all sorts of things, including crafting policy proposals. But that fear seemed to be shared across the board.

Paige Winfield Cunningham (@pw_cunningham) is a national health care reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the Post’s daily health policy newsletter.