Fired D.C. insurance commissioner tried to apologize for criticizing Obamacare fix

Fired D.C. insurance commissioner tried to apologize for criticizing Obamacare fix

By Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post, Monday, November 18, 6:08 AM

A fuller accounting of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) firing of the city’s insurance commissioner is coming into view.

Documents and interviews show that criticism of William P. White was immediate and fierce inside Gray’s office last week when White issued a statement critical of President Obama’s proposed fix to part of the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

In a fast-moving series of events, tempers flared and White was fired less than a day later despite a late-night apology in a voicemail left on Gray’s cellphone and a lengthy mea culpa via e-mail to the mayor’s senior staff.

According to a copy of that e-mail reviewed Sunday night by The Washington Post, White wrote that he took “full responsibility” for his statement questioning the wisdom of Obama’s plan. He also wrote that he would work to fix “any problems or misconceptions that might result from my action.”

White was among the first of several insurance commissioners last week to push back against Obama’s plan to let millions of Americans who unexpectedly lost their insurance try to keep their plans for one more year.

Obama’s proposal is an effort to quell bipartisan criticism of the canceled plans. But White was among a group of industry regulators who saw Obama’s move as weakening the law’s nascent health-care exchanges and as injecting uncertainty into deals made with insurance companies to comply with the new law.

In a statement issued late Thursday afternoon, hours after Obama announced the plan, White hinted strongly that he opposed the idea.

“The action today undercuts the purpose of the exchanges, including the District’s DC Health Link, by creating exceptions that make it more difficult for them to operate,” the statement said.

According to two people with knowledge of the events that followed — both of whom were interviewed on the condition of anonymity — Gray chief of staff Christopher Murphy called White, questioning why the statement was issued without the approval of the mayor’s office.

White e-mailed the statement to mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro at the same time he sent it to staffers to publish online, one of the two said. Ribeiro had not yet weighed in when the statement became public on a city Web site, about 20 minutes later.

The two people interviewed about what happened insisted that their names not be used because they were not authorized to discuss a city personnel issue.

In interviews on Saturday and Sunday, White said he had issued other statements on his Web site dozens of times previously without waiting for the mayor’s approval — albeit on less controversial issues. In those instances, he said, there was no objection from Gray or his staff.

After the statement on Obama’s proposal was posted, however, the mayor’s office reacted with considerable concern, and the two sides went back and forth for hours in a heated exchange, the two officials said.

For “a very long time,” White did not acknowledge that what he had done amounted to a serious mistake, one senior city official said. White initially defended the statement, the official said.

Eventually, White’s supervisor, Deputy Mayor Victor L. Hoskins, and City Administrator Allen Y. Lew called White and made it “supremely clear” that he had made a serious mistake, the official said. Only then did White “seem to understand the severity of the error.”

At 11:06 p.m. Thursday, White e-mailed Hoskins, Murphy, Lew and others, recounting his rationale for moving quickly that day to make a public statement.

“I was concerned that failure to respond might lead to some of the problems we encountered last year with the marketplace changes and the initial rollout of the exchange; the industry and their lobbyists took advantage of our initial silence in the press and used it to undermine our efforts,” White wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail made available to The Washington Post.

Another reason: “I thought a statement as a regulator would buy us some time to look at our options.”

White concluded the e-mail with an apology: “I take full responsibility for the press statement and its release. I understand that this was a failure in our process because I should have clarified my intentions and sought approval from [the executive office of the mayor] before issuing the press statement. I apologize for any difficulties this caused.”

He followed up with a call directly to the mayor’s cellphone, he said in an interview on Sunday. It was apparently too little, too late.

The city official interviewed by The Post said the episode raised concerns about White’s judgment.

For White, who has helped give the District a functioning health-care Web site and who successfully managed the takeover of a faltering insurer, the fall has been surreal.

“I thought I had saved up enough political capital” to weather the flap, he said.

White spent Sunday polishing his résumé.

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