Friday, 24 May 2013 07:49 PM
By Todd Beamon
Just as the Obama administration continues to reel from three major scandals, Republicans are zeroing in on yet one more — this one involving Obamacare as it nears implementation.
GOP legislators are targeting Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the solicitations she made to some of the nation’s top insurance companies and other groups for donations to Enroll America, the nonprofit group charged with selling Obamacare to the public.
“Our guys on the Hill think this is the fourth scandal,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told Reuters this week. “It fits into that narrative Republicans are building not only about incompetence in the executive branch but also dishonesty.
“This is a good issue for Republicans,” he added. “We want to maximize it.”
Now under question are forays by Sebelius to two private entities, H&R Block Inc., the tax preparation company, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic entity devoted to public health issues.
Republicans say the practice, which if not unprecedented, is at the very least unusual.
Federal law bars officials from soliciting any organization or individual with whom they do business or regulate — though neither entity is regulated by HHS.
"People are watching it very closely,” GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, told Reuters. “We're hearing about it from constituents, people who are incredibly concerned.”
An HHS statement last week disclosed the two solicitations, Reuters reports. The agency this week declined to provide the news organization with a list of all solicitations before or after March, when Sebelius began approaching groups by telephone.
“We received a phone call from the secretary during which the secretary discussed supporting Enroll America," H&R Block told Reuters in a statement. "While we took her suggestion under consideration, we have made no commitment.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said in a statement, that it had "recently approved new funding" for Enroll America, bringing its total contributions to the group to nearly $14 million since 2010.
The foundation did not say, however, how much of that — if any — resulted from Sebelius' solicitation.
Enroll America, founded in September 2011, is run by President Barack Obama’s former campaign backers.
The group seeks to be the private sector’s point group for a huge public outreach campaign intended to get millions of uninsured Americans to sign up for subsidized insurance coverage through new online marketplaces, or exchanges, that will begin open enrollment on Oct. 1.
The Enroll America controversy is the second questioning the approach used by the Obama White House to promote Obamacare: utilizing campaign-style organizations staffed with loyalists and former campaign or White House aides to mobilize grassroots support for government policies.
The first involved Organizing for Action, an independent nonprofit organization seeking to harness both the energy and personnel from Obama's re-election campaign in support of the president's legislative agenda.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee expanded its probe into Sebelius’ actions on Friday by writing letters to 15 insurance companies and other groups asking whether the secretary had asked them for donations to Enroll America.
The letter asked companies to provide any communications — including emails — that document conversations with Sebelius or discussions about her request.
In the letter, committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan cited a possible conflict of interest, since “HHS regulation of the health insurance industry will only grow under [healthcare reform], including by approving health insurers to participate in the exchanges," The Hill reports.
The companies that letters were sent to include Aetna, Blue Shield of California, Cigna, Coventry Health Care, HCSC Group, Highmark, Humana, Independence Blue Cross, Kaiser Permanente, United Healthcare, WellPoint, America's Health Insurance Plans, BlueCross BlueShield Association, and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
GOP legislators have also asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to investigate.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, who also represents Tennessee, has charged that the Sebelius solicitations violated the federal "anti-deficiency" act, which bars agencies from accepting "voluntary" services except when authorized by law.
But an HHS spokesman countered to Reuters that the Public Health Service Act allowed the secretary to encourage support for new and innovative health programs, including Enroll America.
The Sebelius flashpoint comes as the White House fends off criticism about its handling of the attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans; the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of tea party, conservative, and religious groups; and the Justice Department's secret seizure of telephone records of editors and reporters at The Associated Press.