On Dec. 31, former South Carolina lawmaker Anton Gunn cleaned out his Washington, D.C. office and stepped down as director of external affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so he can launch a private consulting firm. He says the rocky rollout of the federal healthcare website had nothing to do with the timing of his resignation. Described by his former colleagues at HHS as an effective advocate for the ACA, Gunn leaves an agency where he called himself Mr. Healthcare and often engaged on social media
with critics of the law. His departure comes amid the retirement of Michelle Snyder
, who as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services oversaw the creation of the much-maligned Healthcare.gov, and also the departure
of that agency’s director of media relations.
Presidential appointees and political appointees generally stay on for an average of about 18 months, Gunn says, and he’s stayed on for almost 40.
“So it’s a long time,” he says. “It’s a lot of work. It’s very grueling work. You’ll see people leave at any point in time, and it looks like something is going on because people are leaving, but I promise you that every month from the first eight months of the administration you had people leaving.”
President Barack Obama appointed Gunn in 2010 to the federal health agency’s southeast regional director post. In that role, Gunn handled federal healthcare issues for South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. At the time of his appointment, Gunn was serving as a Democratic member of the S.C. House in Columbia. Prior to that he ran the now-defunct nonprofit S.C. Fair Share, a Columbia-based consumer advocacy group that focused on healthcare. In 2008 he worked on Obama’s presidential campaign, and he and the president have remained close throughout his job in the Obama administration.
Though he’s moving out of the public sector, the former Gamecocks lineman insists he’ll continue to be a hardcore advocate for the national healthcare law.
“I’m just playing a different position on the field,” he says. “I did a lot of blocking and tackling for the last three and a half years for the administration and now I’m trying to change positions because I think I can run the ball a lot faster than some of the people we got as running backs, so I’m just taking that opportunity.”
In a way, being a Democratic lawmaker in heavily conservative South Carolina might have prepared Gunn for his federal role as an advocate of national healthcare reform in a part of the country that’s political leadership has been largely hostile to such efforts.
“The level of ignorance about what is actually in the law versus what is not in the law is pervasive across the country, and it was keenly pervasive across the South,” Gunn says. “My role and responsibility was to engage the public, engage stakeholders, engage the business community, and the elected leadership across the South to talk to them about what’s in the Affordable Care Act, what opportunity it provides the states, local businesses, local consumers across the board. The resistance was high because of the political nature under which a lot of people perceive the president and Congress and what it passed, and all of the outside forces who didn’t want change to happen.”
But there were bright spots.
One of the moments Gunn recalls best from his days at HHS was when he addressed a group of about 250 medical doctors at the University of Tennessee in Nashville. It was in the spring of 2011.
“I walked into the room and they were very stoic at a minimum,” he says. Some walked out. Others played with their phones or stared at the ceiling. “They just weren’t interested at all.”
But after he gave a brass-tacks presentation on the goals and the aims of the ACA and how measures in the law could help doctors, he says the doctors came around. He explained how $40 billion in tax credits had been set aside for small businesses and talked about preventative services and routine screenings.
“I went from having mean looks and people not paying attention to everybody sitting up straight, focused in on what I was saying,” he says. “I got a standing ovation when I finished.”
Gunn rose from his role as a regional director to the director of external affairs for the agency. He moved from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. where he coordinated meetings with outside stakeholders like insurance company CEOs, hospital system heads, presidents of medical colleges, and business leaders as they shaped regulations for the ACA, and organized outreach with them and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the White House, and Obama.
“We did a successful job, in my opinion, of really engaging stakeholders across the country organizationally as well as individually, and that’s why I think you saw such great demand on Oct. 1 on the website,” Gunn says. “We had 20 million people in less than a week go to the website.”
But those people had a hard time signing up. The website was pretty much a disaster. Three months after the website’s launch, some users are still unable to get coverage through the Healthcare.gov portal for one reason or another. In the meantime, HHS has been sending stacks of identical form letters to households where an individuals has tried to sign up, fueling even more frustration.
“It was hard to see that happen on October first, and everything I was telling people was going to work wasn’t working,” Gunn says. He tells people the law is a lot bigger than a website even though that’s the most immediate aspect that people without coverage are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s hard for me not being able to do anything about that,” he says. “That’s not in my control. So you have to develop some serenity about it, which is change the things you can and accept anything that you can’t control. And then have trust and faith that the people who can change those things are able to do that quickly so people can get the coverage that they so need.”
For now, Gunn plans to stay in Washington, D.C. with his family. Asked about whether he’d consider moving back to South Carolina to get involved in politics in the future, he says he’s not “closing any doors,” but right now wants to focus on his family and entrepreneurial goals.
His new firm will be a broad-based strategy group working in the areas of politics and healthcare. A big part of it will be public speaking engagements on the healthcare reform conference circuit where he’ll talk about the Affordable Care Act. He said he’ll be getting paid by convention planners, not from government contracts.
Gunn is stilling calling himself Mr. Healthcare, and he’s still using social media to defend the law. “No American will have to worry that losing a job means you can’t get health coverage. #ThanksACA,” he tweeted
on Jan. 2.
An Obama appointee who calls himself Mr. Healthcare and was one of the Affordable Care Act’s most outspoken defenders has joined a handful of federal officials leaving the public sector at the start of 2014.