The state board charged with implementing health care reform in Connecticut has close ties with a special interest group, raising questions about the board’s independence since the advocacy group has hired the outside experts advising the board.

Last month, the 11-member SustiNet board released a report on federal health care reform. The board created the report with the assistance of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.

The Meriden-based foundation advocates for changes to health policy through grants and activities across the state. In 2008 and 2009 UHCFC lobbied the state legislature to pass the bill that created the SustiNet board.

In order to keep the law from costing the state money – as promised in the bill – the foundation is spending $150,000 to pay expenses for the board.

UHCFC and three other foundations will provide a total of $615,000.

“The whole SustiNet program has never been about how to deliver health in the State of Connecticut,” said Rep. Bill Hamzy, a Republican, who represents Bristol and Plymouth. “It’s a predetermined conclusion for both entities.”

He said the foundation changed the initial SustiNet legislation into a study after the General Assembly balked at its $1 billion price tag. He said the study is just a “smokescreen.”
Hamzy said the foundation’s only mission is to create a single-payer health system in Connecticut. He said the board’s objective is the same.

“I don’t make a distinction between the Universal Health Care Foundation and the SustiNet board,” Hamzy added. “Do you think the Universal Health Care Foundation or the SustiNet board would consider health savings accounts? No, their mission is clear.”

The foundation paid the Urban Institute, a think tank, $25,000 for senior research associate Stan Dorn to advise the board and help write the report, according to Jill Zorn, a program officer for UHCFC.
Zorn said the remaining $125,000 committed by the foundation has not been spent and would go toward gathering public input.

Zorn said she doesn’t see any conflict in her organization providing money to support the board. She said the legislation specifically said the board could seek outside funding. “I think it’s becoming quite a normal role for philanthropy to partner with government,” she said. “We’ve been very public about our participation.”
In addition to the Universal Health Care Foundation hiring experts for the SustiNet board, it has pre-existing financial relationships with at least three of its 11 members.

Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action in New Haven, sits on the SustiNet board. According to the foundation’s Web site, Christian Community Action received $180,339 from UHCFC over three years.

SustiNet board member Sal Luciano, executive director of Council 4 AFSCME, also has an intertwined relationship with the Universal Health Care Foundation. According to the foundation’s Web site, Council 4 received $100,000 from UHCFC over two years.

Luciano is also the administrative vice president of the John J. Driscoll United Labor Agency, which received $147,100 from the foundation over three years. Citizens for Economic Opportunity, a union coalition, received $475,000 from UHCFC over five years. Luciano serves on the executive board of CEO.

Dr. Bruce Gould, associate dean for primary care at the University of Connecticut Health Center, serves on the SustiNet board. He also serves ex-officio on the board of Central Area Health Education Center, which received $12,000 from the foundation in 2007.

SustiNet board co-chairman Kevin Lembo, the state Healthcare Advocate, said he is grateful for the money from the “funding collaborative.”

Lembo said there are “many points of agreement” with the Universal Health Care Foundation, but SustiNet’s work is “not entirely consistent” with the foundation’s.

He said some of the funding came from organizations “that have different views of the world,” citing the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as an example. RWJF will provide $75,000 for SustiNet.

According to Lembo, SustiNet board members will have to make recommendations “they can support as individuals.” He said it is “not the Universal Health Care Foundation that’s going to make the decision.”
Lembo said the foundation money is being spent directly by the foundations, not by the state, so he could not provide information about how the money is being spent.

Norma Gyle, a Department of Public Health deputy commissioner and SustiNet board member, said the “seed money” from the foundations is “insignificant in the big picture” of what SustiNet will cost, which legislators and outside groups estimate will be more than $1 billion a year.

“Ethically, I don’t know” about the funding, said Department of Public Health deputy commissioner Cristine Vogel, who serves as an ex-officio member of the SustiNet board. “We have lots of ethics rules as an agency. I honestly don’t know how people are getting paid.”

“It doesn’t feel right when I read the press release and they got $600,000 more,” Vogel said. “As a Republican commissioner, I would be on the front page of the Hartford Courant.”

“Connecticut’s a very small state,” Lembo explained. He said it is likely everyone involved with SustiNet can “name everyone else who’s been working on health care reform issues” in the state.

Zachary Janowski is an investigative reporter for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.