Research Firm Cited by GOP Is Owned by Health Insurer

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By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009; 6:46 PM

The political battle over health-care reform is waged largely with numbers, and few number-crunchers have shaped the debate as much as the Lewin Group, a consulting firm whose research has been widely cited by opponents of a public insurance option.

To Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, it is "the nonpartisan Lewin Group." To Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, it is an "independent research firm." To Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the second-ranking Republican on the pivotal Finance Committee, it is "well known as one of the most nonpartisan groups in the country."

Generally left unsaid amid all the citations is that the Lewin Group is wholly owned by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation's largest insurers.

More specifically, the Lewin Group is part of Ingenix, a UnitedHealth subsidiary that was accused by the New York attorney general and the American Medical Association, a physician's group, of helping insurers shift medical expenses to consumers by distributing skewed data. Ingenix supplied its parent company and other insurers with data that allegedly understated the "usual and customary" doctor fees that insurers use to determine how much they will reimburse consumers for out-of-network care.

In January, UnitedHealth agreed to a $50 million settlement with the New York attorney general and a $350 million settlement with the AMA, covering conduct going back as far as 1994.

Ingenix chief executive Andrew Slavitt said the Ingenix data was never biased, but Ingenix nonetheless agreed to exit that particular line of business. "The data didn't have the appearance of independence that's necessary for it to be useful," Slavitt said.

Lewin Group Vice President John Sheils said his firm had nothing to do with the allegedly flawed Ingenix reimbursement data. Lewin has gone through "a terribly difficult adjustment" since it was bought by UnitedHealth in 2007, because the corporate ownership "does create the appearance of a conflict of interest."

"It hasn't affected . . . the work we do, and I think people who know me know that I am not a good liar," Sheils said.

Lewin's clients include the government and private groups with a variety of perspectives, including the Commonwealth Fund and the Heritage Foundation. A February report contained information that could be used to argue for a single-payer system, the approach most threatening to private insurers, Sheils noted.

But not all of the firm's reports see the light of day. For example, a study for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association was never released, Sheils said.

"Let's just say, sometimes studies come out that don't show exactly what the client wants to see. And in those instances, they have [the] option to bury the study -- to not release it, rather," Sheils said.

Asked to comment, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association spokesman Brett Lieberman said, "We're still working with Lewin on a study, and, you know, we don't talk about our studies until they're done."


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