Christine Stuart photo
Mark Schaefer, the director of the state’s Healthcare Innovation office (Christine Stuart photo)

A committee in charge of a $45 million grant to re-imagine how healthcare is paid for and delivered in Connecticut has adopted “conflict of interest” language that allows its members to financially benefit from the grant.

New Haven Legal Assistance Attorney Sheldon Toubman said the conflict of interest language the Healthcare Innovation Steering Committee adopted last week was “inadequate” and “watered down.”

The language the committee adopted says: “Members of the advisory bodies may participate in program design and development decisions, even if they or their organizations may potentially reap a benefit.”

Advocates who attended the meeting last week say language like that is problematic, because the group is responsible for “granular” decisions regarding the healthcare system. The Steering Committee is composed of a number of individuals who could financially benefit from the grant.

That’s why Ellen Andrews, executive director of the Connecticut Health Policy Project, asked the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board several months ago whether the Steering Committee was bound by the state code of ethics. The Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board recently found that the Steering Committee was not subject to the state ethics code because its members were appointed by Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. It’s not clear why the rules were written this way, but the state’s definition of a public official specifically excludes any appointments by or appointees of the lieutenant governor.

At its monthly meeting last week, the Steering Committee postponed action on a resolution to subject themselves to the state code of ethics.

But not before some members of the committee expressed hesitation and questioned how other states who received a similar grant have tackled the issue of ethics.

Howard Rifkin, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s legal counsel and chief of staff, said he doesn’t believe the Steering Committee — which he believes is an advisory committee — rises to the level of public official under the ethics code.

“I understand the concerns that have been expressed,” Rifkin said.

He said with the code of ethics comes with various requirements, such as financial disclosures and revolving door issues.

He said by proposing the conflict of interest standards, the committee “has gone farther than any advisory board that I’ve ever seen in my service in state government.”

But Steering Committee member David Guttchen, who is the director of health and human services at the Office of Policy and Management, pointed out that only certain state employees and elected officials are required to submit financial disclosures. He said most state employees who are subject to the code of ethics are not required to submit those types of disclosures.

Andrews said the revolving door law also would not apply to the group. She said adopting the code of ethics would pose no future employment threat to anyone on the committee who is not a state employee.

Andrews initially raised the issue with the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board because she saw that the Steering Committee — and its various subcommittees — were composed of individuals whose businesses may benefit from some of the $45 million the committee has available for grants. She said she believes members of the committee are public officials and should be subject to the code.

Mark Schaefer, the director of the state’s Healthcare Innovation office, said the decisions around funding are made by the program management office or the administration. He downplayed the decisions the advisory committees were making in creating guidelines for the distribution of the grant funds.

Jan Van Tassel, a member of the Steering Committee and executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said she understands they are an advisory committee, but they are making important decisions about how the administration allocates those funds.

“I think the term advisory board may be a little misleading in terms of their role,” Van Tassel said. “I think they play a very important role.”

She said creating exceptions to the state code of ethics “raises unnecessary questions.”

Alta Lash, another member of the Steering Committee, said “the public perception of this is extremely important because we’re talking about a lot of money.”

She said she would need to have someone make a compelling case to vote for an alternative to the state code of ethics.

The Steering Committee will meet July 16 to vote on whether to subject themselves to the state’s code.