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Jonathan Gruber is a good economist but bad with PR

MIT Economist Jonathan Gruber is on the Mass. Health Connector board.reuters

The Massachusetts Health Connector has 99 problems, but Jonathan Gruber isn’t one. The four GOP state senators who have called for the respected MIT economist to resign from the connector’s board are aiming at the wrong target. Last year’s bungled rollout of the state’s health website, which is intended to connect citizens with health insurance plans, cost taxpayers still-uncounted millions. Legislators would be better off demanding auditor Suzanne Bump and Governor-elect Charlie Baker get to the bottom of what happened, rather than joining a frivolous right-wing vendetta against Gruber.

Gruber is not an information technology expert who can reasonably be blamed for the website fiasco; he’s a health economist, and has unique qualifications for the board. As one of Mitt Romney’s advisers in the state’s 2006 health overhaul, he knows the law better than almost anyone in Massachusetts. He was also an architect of the federal Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. His is a valuable perspective to have on the board, especially as it continues to adapt the Massachusetts system to the national one.

But Gruber has recently become a target of conservative media outlets nationally because of comments about Obamacare he made at a conference in Pennsylvania last year that were captured on video. The section of the video concerns a part of the law that prohibits insurance companies from excluding sick people from coverage. In explaining why the law was written the way it was, he said: “In terms of risk-rated subsidies, in a law that said healthy people are gonna pay in — if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed . . . Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.”

Gruber’s words make a powerful case why he should stick with economics and forget about a second career in political punditry. His words were impolitic, and he again apologized for them at a Congressional hearing last week. He was also fundamentally wrong in his analysis of the politics of health care: most Americans do, in fact, understand that insurance by its nature pools risk, and that healthy people have always subsidized sick ones.

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Still, those gaffes don’t detract from Gruber’s policy expertise. The health site’s problems were real, and Massachusetts lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — should be focused on learning from them. Injecting an unrelated national crusade straight from the conservative echo-chamber only makes that less likely.

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