Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that she made five phone calls in connection with Enroll America, a nonprofit helping with outreach and education for the health care law. Two of the calls were fundraising solicitations, she said.
The other three phone calls were made to the health care companies Johnson & Johnson, Ascension Health and Kaiser Permanente to discuss Enroll America and suggest that the companies take a look at the organization, Sebelius told lawmakers at a House hearing. No funds were requested in those calls, she said.
Congressional Republicans continue to question the legality of Sebelius’ efforts to solicit assistance from the private sector for Enroll America to assist in implementing the 2010 overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).
Sebelius said Tuesday that she made two calls soliciting funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block, noting that neither is regulated by her department. Johnson & Johnson, Ascension and Kaiser are all regulated by HHS.
But Sebelius also maintained that the Public Health Service Act (PL 78-410) does not restrict her authority to those entities that are not regulated by HHS.
“I could solicit — legally solicit funds from anybody regulated by our office,” she said. “I chose not to do that.”
The outreach was needed to help connect Americans with the benefits of the health care law, she said. “It was always recognized from the day the president signed the bill that there would never be enough government funding and that there would not be enough opportunity if this is only a government-run program.”
Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, one of several lawmakers to discuss the issue at the House Education and the Workforce hearing, asked what she requested of the health care foundation and the income tax preparation business.
Sebelius said she talked to the companies about “how important this outreach effort was going to be and the fact that always we anticipated having public-private partnerships on the ground, as has been done in CHIP enrollment, in Medicare Part D enrollment.” And she asked that they consider contributing to Enroll America, which she noted is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Democratic Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey repeated Sebelius’ comparison of her efforts to those for Medicare Part D and said that he doesn’t remembers any lawmakers “questioning the propriety of that activity” during its implementation. He called her actions “entirely proper and desirable.”
“I hope the accusation that you are using every legal resource at your disposal to get health care for Americans that need it is something you are doing,” Andrews said. “Matter of fact, if you’re not doing that, I would take you to task.”
In response to questions from South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, Sebelius confirmed that she did not request a specific amount from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block and said Enroll America was the only organization for which she solicited funds.
She also said that she did not discuss soliciting funds for the group with anyone at the White House. And she pledged to make the legal opinion that she relied upon for making the calls available to the committee, along with the precedents set by former health secretaries for implementing other HHS policies.
Still, Gowdy questioned the implications of her phone calls to the three groups that she did not specifically ask for funds, because they are regulated by HHS. If health care officials say they felt pressured to make contributions to Enroll America, he said, what would her response be?
“Well, I can’t answer what they felt,” she said. “I made fundraising solicitations to two groups who are not regulated. I did not discuss funding with the other three entities. I did discuss Enroll America. And I would tell you that the statutory authority, section 1704 in the Public Health Service Act, would not make that distinction.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement that the hearing raised additional legal and ethical questions. “The message being sent by the Obama Administration is get behind this private group run by a former White House staffer and we’ll give you more favorable treatment when it comes to regulations,” Hatch said.
The hearing, which was called to examine the president’s fiscal 2014 budget request, also touched on other issues including Head Start and the health care law’s tax on medical devices.