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I love hard numbers. Like 350. That's how many high-ranking former Congressional and White House staff, many of them tied to today's key health reform committees, are working as lobbyists for the medical and insurance industries, according to an eye-opening Washington Post story published today. And like $126 million--the dollars those industries spent on lobbying in just the first quarter of this year. 

Plenty of us have noticed, and pointed out, the lobbying army working on behalf of health insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals and medical associations. But the numbers and names in the Post story speak volumes--at least 350 well-connected top staff from House and Senate offices and agencies, including Health and Human Services, are courting and cornering their former buddies to "educate" them about what industry wants from government.

That's not even counting powerful ex-lawmakers like former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Tauzin, as some may recall, had a big role in 2003 in putting the drug industry completely in charge of the Medicare prescription drug benefit entirely in the hands of the drug companies, and forbidding Medicare itself from bargaining for better prices. The drug industry paid off Tauzin a year later by making him its top lobbyist.

The thorough Post story makes the case that the newpaper's reporters are still independent of an ethically challenged publisher who was caught trying to let health care and other companies buy access to policymakers and Post reporters at "exclusive" dinners.

The lobbyists described in the story, however, are buying access in Congress and the White House with much greater success:

Overall, health-care companies and their representatives spent more
than $126 million on lobbying in the first quarter, leading all other
industries, according to CRP and Senate data. PhRMA led the pack in
spending and employs 49 former government staff members among its 136
lobbyists, according to The Post's analysis. Dozens of other former
insiders are employed as lobbyists by Pfizer, Eli Lilly, the AMA and
the American Hospital Association, each of which spent at least $3.5
million on lobbying from January through March.

The aim of the lobbying blitz is simple: to minimize the damage to
insurers, hospitals and other major sectors while maximizing the
potential of up to 46 million uninsured Americans as new customers.
Although many firms have vowed to help cut costs, major players such as
PhRMA, America's Health Insurance Plans and others remain opposed to
the public-insurance option, a key proposal that President Obama has
endorsed.

Several major Democratic bills include such a plan, but [Sen.] Baucus's committee -- which is acting as the central broker in the debate -- has
not committed to the idea. Instead, the Finance Committee has focused
recently on private-insurance cooperatives and other proposals seen as
more palatable to the insurance industry and centrist Democrats. More
than 50 former employees of the committee or its members lobby on
behalf of the health-care industry, records show.

(Here also is a revealing chart from the Sunlight Foundation on the health care lobbying might of Baucus' former stafferes)

Meanwhile, consumer groups and advocates of a single-payer health care plan are frozen out of the debate. There is no wealthy lobby for consumers, and most people are too busy holding down jobs or looking for a job to spend months roaming the halls of Congress--even if they had the magic key for private access to lawmakers. 

So even though more than 70% of Americans said in a CBS/NYTimes poll that they want a publicly run and financed alternative to the private health insurance industry, that same unloved industry has bought outright a major voice in the debate.  

Some of the quotes from lobbyists are nearly hilarious:

William K. "Billy" Wynne, a former Baucus health counsel who now works
for the Health Policy Source lobbying firm, said that "there's nothing
insidious" about medical companies and groups hiring former legislative
staff members. ...

"The technical processes of the House and Senate are not intuitive
or widely known," Wynne said. "Like with any service, people who have
experience are going to be valuable to people who don't."

As if anyone think he's getting a hefty six figures or more a year to tell drug makers about parliamentary procedure. The benefit of stories like the Washington Post's is that the lobbyists' intended targets know that someone is watching--and the public knows exactly who to blame if health reform is an expensive industry-friendly dud.