In a blog post yesterday, Paul Krugman tells his readers that they shouldn’t look at a Rasmussen poll on healthcare reform in Massachusetts because “it’s Rasmussen.” He points to a poll that he deems more accurate and trustworthy, by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Globe. The poll shows that healthcare reform in Massachusetts is actually fairly popular (Krugman supports Massachusetts-style healthcare reform).
But Krugman’s preferred poll is undermined by a significant conflict of interest: it was co-directed by a health insurance company board member, Robert Blendon. Blendon, a Harvard public health professor, has been on the board of Assurant since 1993, earns about $150,000 a year in this role, and is heavily invested in the insurance company.
Blendon offers a long list of affiliations in his Harvard bio, but fails to note his Assurant directorship. He also participates in Politico’s The Arena as a healthcare strategist, but his bio there also fails to note his health insurance company ties.
Blendon does, however, disclose his dual role in a similar poll of Massachusetts physicians published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 2009 (and supported by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation).
Though Assurant does not appear to offer health insurance in Massachusetts, the company has been positioning itself to profit from health insurance mandates for some time. Here is Assurant Health CEO Don Hamm discussing the Massachusetts mandate with insurance industry analysts on a September 2006 conference call (Rob Pollock is the CEO of Assurant):
ROB POLLOCK: Sure. The question was mandating of health insurance [ala] Massachusetts and other states — and I see my colleague Don Hamm has just entered the room, and Don is the President and CEO of Assurant Health, and I think he’s uniquely positioned to answer that question.
DON HAMM, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ASSURANT HEALTH: Yes, the Massachusetts development is a very interesting one, something that we’ve followed very closely. First of all, we did not sell in Massachusetts any individual health, so it did not affect us directly. The issue is more of [the other one] of the collision between the affordability of the product and the number of people that aren’t insured, and this is something that Assurant Health is well-positioned to take advantage of. We have developed a product called RightStart, which is really targeted at those people that have money but have not decided to buy insurance. So we are really trying to find solutions to the underlying issue that’s causing things that have happened in Massachusetts.
As an Assurant director, Blendon was certainly aware that Assurant was positioning itself to benefit from insurance mandates, and should have disclosed his role and interest in the healthcare reform debate, if not recused himself from a poll of this nature.
This is the sort of potential conflict of interest that we would like to help readers discover and highlight with NewsShift, our recent Knight News Challenge entry (a collaboration between ShiftSpace, Eyebeam, and LittleSis). NewsShift is a web platform that adds a social research layer to online news stories. Readers using it would be able to find information on Blendon while reading about the Harvard-Globe poll. They could then highlight this potential conflict of interest for fellow readers, enabling bloggers and journalists to follow up on the research (in this case, it might inform the Globe of Blendon’s dual role and prompt them to disclose it).
Check out our application and give us your feedback!