Fired D.C. insurance commissioner tried to apologize for criticizing Obamacare fix

November 18, 2013

A fuller accounting of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s firing of the city’s insurance commissioner came into view Monday as the mayor’s staff worked to head off any threat of a council probe of the firing.

Documents and interviews showed that criticism of William P. White was immediate and fierce inside Gray’s office late last week, when White issued a statement critical of President Obama’s proposed fix to part of the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Tempers flared on Thursday and White was fired less than a day later despite a late-night apology in a voice mail left on Gray’s cellphone and a lengthy mea culpa via e-mail to the mayor’s senior staff.

According to a copy of that e-mail reviewed by The Washington Post, White wrote that he took “full responsibility” for his statement questioning the wisdom of Obama’s plan. He also wrote that he would work to fix “any problems or misconceptions that might result from my action.”

Gray’s staff reached out to D.C. Council members on Saturday after The Post reported White’s firing. Despite the politically sensitive nature of White’s comments, council members were assured that Gray (D) had simply lost faith in White’s judgment — and that his firing was the mayor’s prerogative.

On Monday, Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), whose committee oversees the city’s Insurance, Securities and Banking department, said he was not inclined to hold a hearing or demand more information about the firing.

“You can’t have the commissioner out there taking on the president, and the mayor being on a different page,” Orange said. “And lost in this discussion is the fact that we are doing a really great job getting our exchange running . . . that’s the bottom line.”

White was among the first of several insurance commissioners last week to push back against Obama’s plan to let millions of Americans who unexpectedly lost their coverage try to keep their plans for one more year.

Obama’s proposal was an effort to quell bipartisan criticism of the canceled plans. But White was among a group of industry regulators who saw Obama’s move as weakening the law’s health-care exchanges and injecting uncertainty into deals the city had made with insurance companies to comply with the new law.

In a statement issued late Thursday afternoon, hours after Obama announced the plan, White hinted strongly that he opposed the idea.

“The action today undercuts the purpose of the exchanges, including the District’s DC Health Link, by creating exceptions that make it more difficult for them to operate,” the statement said.

According to two people with knowledge of the events that followed — both of whom were interviewed on the condition of anonymity — Gray’s chief of staff, Christopher Murphy, called White, questioning why the statement was issued without the approval of the mayor’s office.

White had e-mailed the statement to mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro at the same time he sent it to staffers to publish online, one of the two said. Ribeiro had not yet weighed in when the statement became public on a city Web site, about 20 minutes later.

The two people interviewed about what happened insisted that their names not be used because they were not authorized to discuss a city personnel issue.

In interviews on Saturday and Sunday, White said he had issued other statements on his Web site dozens of times previously without waiting for the mayor’s approval — albeit on less controversial issues. In those instances, he said, there was no objection from Gray or his staff.

After the statement on Obama’s proposal was posted, however, the mayor’s office reacted with considerable concern, and the two sides went back and forth for hours in a heated exchange, the two officials said.

For “a very long time,” White did not acknowledge that what he had done amounted to a serious mistake, one senior city official said. White initially defended the statement, the official said.

Eventually, White’s supervisor, Deputy Mayor Victor L. Hoskins, and City Administrator Allen Y. Lew called White and made it “supremely clear” that he had made a serious mistake, the official said. Only then did White “seem to understand the severity of the error.”

At 11:06 p.m. Thursday, White e-mailed Hoskins, Murphy, Lew and others, recounting his rationale for moving quickly that day to make a public statement.

“I was concerned that failure to respond might lead to some of the problems we encountered last year with the marketplace changes and the initial rollout of the exchange; the industry and their lobbyists took advantage of our initial silence in the press and used it to undermine our efforts,” White wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail made available to The Post.

Another reason: “I thought a statement as a regulator would buy us some time to look at our options.”

White concluded the e-mail with an apology: “I take full responsibility for the press statement and its release. I understand that this was a failure in our process because I should have clarified my intentions and sought approval from [the executive office of the mayor] before issuing the press statement. I apologize for any difficulties this caused.”

He followed up with a call to the mayor’s cellphone, he said in an interview on Sunday. It apparently was not enough.

One of the people interviewed by The Post said the episode raised concerns about White’s judgment and whether he could be trusted to represent the administration.

White’s statement was removed from the city’s Web site before the start of business Friday and replaced with another saying the city would carefully weigh its options on Obama’s proposed fix.

At his first public event since the firing, Gray on Monday refused to answer questions, saying he “doesn’t comment on personnel matters.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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