A major player in Idaho politics that helped sway Idaho lawmakers into setting up a state-based health exchange is now benefitting from its work.
The Idaho health exchange announced it has awarded a $200,000 outreach, website design and public relations contract to Gallatin Public Affairs, a consulting firm with an office in downtown Boise.
Gallatin, stocked with seasoned political operatives including former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and his former chief of staff, Marc Johnson, knows the issue well. The firm played a key role in urging Idaho lawmakers to pass a state-based model, rather than letting the feds build the exchange, essentially an online insurance marketplace.
According to lobbyist filings, Lyn Darrington, a Gallatin partner, worked on behalf of Regence Blue Shield, one of Idaho’s major health insurance carriers, during the contentious 2013 session. Regence, along with other insurers, was a major force behind the push to adopt the state model.
Darrington has a long history with the insurer. From 1996 until she left in 2005 to join Gallatin, she worked as Regence’s assistant vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs.
She’s not, however, Gallatin’s sole connection to Regence. Johnson served on the health insurer’s board, according to his public LinkedIn profile and the Regence website. He resigned that post on April 15, 2013.
Two Idaho lawmakers, Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell, and Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, told IdahoReporter.com last week that Darrington lobbied each of them to back the exchange.
Hixon, a freshman legislator, said he didn’t remember the specifics of his meeting with Darrington, only that she urged him to support the state model.
Packer, who now sits on the health exchange’s oversight board thanks to an appointment by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, said she met with Darrington and Regence’s in-house lobbyist, former Idaho Department of Insurance official Shad Priest, during the session.
Records filed with the secretary of state’s office show Darrington spent $2,447 on lobbying expenses for Regence, more than half the $4,260 she spent on behalf of all her clients. The documents show the $2,447 was spent on “entertainment, food and refreshments.” The records do not specify if that amount was in direct correlation with her pro-exchange lobbying.
Packer says the decision to award the $200,000 outreach contract to Gallatin was above board and entirely ethical. The McCammon freshman, who served on the exchange subcommittee that helped tap Gallatin for the job, said the firm was the most ready and equipped of four finalists considered.
“They came prepared to answer all the questions we had,” Packer said, adding that one finalist didn’t want all of the work, while another had its own questions about if it would be able to fulfill the board’s work request.
To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, Packer said that Darrington didn’t take part in Gallatin’s presentation to the exchange board and Scott Kreilling, Regence’s representative on the panel, abstained from the vote to support the Gallatin nod.
“They were all very concerned with that,” Packer said about the possible appearance of ethical misconduct.
Another member of the exchange oversight panel, Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, flatly denies any connection between Gallatin’s lobbying and the board’s decision to award the contract to the firm.
“I don’t believe in raising doubts on questions that don’t actually exist,” Rice said. For this part, Rice says he doesn’t remember interacting with Darrington during the legislative session.
Gallatin’s managing partner, John Kotek, echoed Packer’s sentiments that the firm was simply better than the other applicants.
“We were chosen not because of our relationship with any particular client or company, but because of our team’s knowledge of Idaho and our experience and expertise in public outreach, public communications, public opinion research and health care policy,” Kotek said in an email.
Gallatin isn’t the only firm that helped push along the state exchange that’s now cashing in. GS Strategy Group, a Boise-based polling firm, will also receive a slice of that $200,000 outreach contract to conduct statewide surveys.
During the legislative session, the Idaho Hospital Association, a pro-exchange group, released a GS Strategy Group-conducted poll that showed more than 74 percent of Idahoans supported the state model.
GS Strategy Group and Gallatin Public Affairs announced last year a joint venture called G Squared.
Public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, based in New York City, will team with Gallatin and GS Strategy as part of the contract.