The close ties between the health insurance industry and the nominee for a top post at the Department of Health and Human Services are raising eyebrows.
Stephen Parente, who was nominated in April to be HHS’ assistant secretary of planning and evaluation (ASPE), helped found and has long served as the director of the Medical Industry Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota, according to Politico. This past summer, UnitedHealth gave $1.2 million to the academic center, which supports research into healthcare industry challenges.
A UnitedHealth spokesperson told the publication that the gift had nothing to do with Parente’s nomination, noting that the company has a “long-standing” partnership with the university in its home state.
Parente also has a private consulting business that has done work for UnitedHealth and other organizations, plus he has served as chairman of the insurer-backed nonprofit research entity called the Health Care Cost Institute, according to the article.
Jeffrey Flier, who served as dean of Harvard Medical School, told Politico that Parente’s ties to the insurance industry aren’t necessarily a red flag—but might require further scrutiny to determine the nature of the interactions.
Similarly, Michael O’Grady, who served as ASPE during the George W. Bush administration said it’s an “advantage” to have someone in a top HHS post who knows what insurers want and how they work.
But others aren’t so sure, pointing out that Parente may be more interested in protecting the interests of health insurers than of consumers.
And as for UnitedHealth’s gift to Parente’s academic center, "the timing doesn’t look good,” Scott Amey, of the Project on Government Oversight, told Politico.
Parente isn’t the only Trump-era HHS nominee to come under scrutiny. While awaiting confirmation for the post of HHS secretary earlier this year, Tom Price, M.D., came under fire from Democrats and other watchdog groups who wanted to investigate whether Price engaged in insider trading when purchasing stock in healthcare companies.
Price ultimately resigned as HHS secretary after facing a mounting controversy over his use of private planes.