A think tank founded by GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich collected at least $37 million over the past eight years from major health-care companies and industry groups, offering special access to the former House speaker and other perks, according to records and interviews.
The Center for Health Transformation, which opened in 2003, brought in dues of as much as $200,000 per year from insurers and other health-care firms, offering some of them “access to Newt Gingrich” and “direct Newt interaction,” according to promotional materials. The biggest funders, including firms such as AstraZeneca, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Novo Nordisk, were also eligible to receive discounts on “products and workshops” from other Gingrich groups.
The health center advocated, among other things, requiring that “anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year must purchase health insurance or post a bond,” a type of insurance mandate that has since become anathema to conservatives.
The group also pushed proposals to build centralized electronic medical records and use such data to research treatment effectiveness, both central features of President Obama’s health-care reforms.
Gingrich, who has been under fire recently for his lucrative consulting business, left the health-care think tank earlier this year to run for president. But his time there exemplifies the former Georgia congressman’s post-legislative career as a well-paid consultant and policy guru, a role that earned him and his companies tens of millions of dollars over the past decade.
His experience at the think tank also illustrates Gingrich’s past flirtations with moderate policies — on health care, the environment and other hot-button issues — that have become the subject of controversy and criticism in the presidential race.
The Gingrich campaign referred questions about the center to the think tank. Susan Meyers, a center spokeswoman, declined to comment on the think tank’s income or staffing levels because it is a private-sector organization. She said that neither the center nor Gingrich has engaged in formal lobbying.
Meyers called Gingrich “a health-care visionary” who was advocating far-reaching reforms “before many of these concepts in health care became mainstream.” She said the think tank’s members don’t always agree on specific issues but are working “toward a common vision of saving lives and money.”
Gingrich has been criticized in recent days after Bloomberg News reported that he earned as much as $1.8 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, a quasi-public corporation that many conservatives blame for the housing crisis. After first suggesting he was hired for a short time as a “historian,” Gingrich has since acknowledged acting as a consultant for the mortgage giant “over a long period of time.”
“I was approached to offer strategic advice; I was glad to offer strategic advice,” Gingrich told reporters in Iowa this week. “We did it for a number of companies, and Gingrich Group was very successful.”
Mixing policy, marketing
One of the key organizations of the Gingrich Group over the past eight years was the health-care center, an unusual hybrid that married the policy focus of a traditional think tank with Gingrich’s instincts for self-promotion and marketing.
The center attracted a long list of global health-care firms and interest groups, which paid $5,000 to $200,000 a year, based on their size, to be members. Based on archived membership lists going back to 2003, that means the center brought in as much as $6.25 million per year from higher-level members giving $50,000 or more, totaling at least $37 million since 2003.
That does not include many other sources of revenue, such as dues from smaller members and fees for polling, research and other services the center offered.
The center has listed scores of firms and industry groups as members over the years, amounting to a Who’s Who of the medical field, from GE Healthcare to the American Hospital Association to Wellpoint, the nation’s largest health insurer. The think tank also drew funding from employers with sizable health-care costs, such as Detroit’s Big Three automakers, records show.
Several firms characterized their membership as a way to share information about potential health-care reforms.
“We engage with a variety of organizations to participate in public policy discussions on issues impacting our business,” said Tony Jewell, spokesman for drugmaker AstraZeneca, which has been listed as a “founding charter member” since 2005. He said the company is reviewing its membership for next year.
Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich spokesman who left as part of a staff exodus from the campaign over the summer, said the think tank “was very successful financially” and played a vital role in promoting free-market solutions for the health-care system. He said Gingrich could have easily cashed in as a registered lobbyist after leaving Congress but chose to try to shape the debate over major public policies instead.
“I don’t think Newt was trying to be an influence-peddler,” Tyler said. “If he had wanted to do that, he could have done that, and he would have been rewarded handsomely for it, I’m sure.”
Although Gingrich gave up ownership of the think tank earlier this year to begin his candidacy, the group still bills him prominently as its founder and sells a long list of Gingrich-related books, videos and other products. Another Gingrich venture, a nonprofit called American Solutions for Winning the Future, closed its doors over the summer amid financial problems.
An issue on campaign trail
A financial disclosure form filed by the candidate in July said his net worth was at least $6.7 million, with income of at least $2.7 million in 2010. The form listed a “convertible promissory note” — a kind of loan that can be paid back or converted into stock — worth $5 million to $25 million from Gingrich Group to Gingrich Productions, a media company run by his wife, Callista.
Gingrich has clashed with other Republican presidential candidates over his evolving positions on health-care issues. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose own state health-care reform plan was a model for Obama’s national approach, attacked Gingrich at one debate: “We got the idea of an individual mandate from you!”
The Gingrich health center’s support for such a mandate was part of an “Insure All Americans” plan that appears to have disappeared from the center’s Web site Thursday.
Gingrich has characterized his previous support for insurance mandates as a response to President Bill Clinton’s more government-focused health-care proposal in the 1990s, and he has said he turned against the idea.
“I am completely opposed to the Obamacare mandate on individuals,” he says in a recent campaign video. “I fought it for 21 / 2 years at the Center for Health Transformation.”
During a recent interview in South Carolina, Gingrich said that ending his involvement in the health-care think tank and other businesses was difficult. He also said that if he fails to win the Republican nomination, he doesn’t know whether he will “do anything as big as the center” again.
“You know, I’ve made a good deal of my income off the speeches and off of being a commentator,” Gingrich said. “All of that went away. So it just got to be much more challenging.”
Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.