The Candidates’ Shadow Health Advisers

A pair of health policy advisers one representing John McCain and the other Barack Obama — took part in a forum (one might say mild-mannered debate) this afternoon at George Washington University. Through this event, they became the public faces of the committees counseling the candidates on health issues.

Health-policy analyst Jay Khosla parried questions about John McCain’s stance; physician Dora Hughes did the same for Barack Obama.

Before joining the McCain campaign, Khosla served as a counsel on health issues for the Senate Budget Committee and held a similar position for former Senate Majority Leader and surgeon William H. Frist.

Hughes, herself a physician, formerly worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as Deputy Director for Health on the Senate Committee on Health. Before that, Hughes was the senior program officer at the Commonwealth Fund, a national health foundation based in New York City.

But when a question from the audience asked who the candidates’ other health and research advisers were, both Khosla and Hughes demurred.

It wasn’t even clear from his somewhat strained response whether Khosla knows who the others are. He mentioned that many excellent people are advising McCain, but when pushed for names, he eventually could name only Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who’s also advising the candidate on science. For more names, Khosla asked the debate’s moderator, National Public Radio correspondent Julie Rovner, to contact others on the candidate’s campaign staff.

He did offer that a health-care professionals coalition physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, optometrists, and others participates weekly in a conference call to discuss health problems and policy recommendations. Members of this coalition identify, from the “ground level,” emerging issues, Khosla said, and a synthesis of their comments gets “funneled to Sen. McCain.”

Khosla did give up a few additional names as being in the McCain inner circle: Grace-Marie Turner, founder of the Galen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and health-care analyst Gail Wolensky, who ran the Medicare/Medicaid programs in the George H. Bush administration.

Hughes did acknowledge knowing who Obama’s other health advisers are, but noted that their services in many cases were being provided confidentially, so she thought it inappropriate to name them. However, she did offer up that the 1989 Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, a former director of NIH, was among them. Other names that she mentioned: David Blumenthal, a health care analyst with an endowed chair at Harvard Medical School and David Cutler (presumably the one that’s a renowned software engineer behind a number of projects, including several of Microsoft’s more recent operating systems).

Today’s forum was organized by the nonpartisan Scientists & Engineers for America. A recording of today’s event is slated to become available at their website this evening.
Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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