Sebelius Defends Calls to Companies To Boost Public Awareness of ACA
While testifying during a House committee hearing on Tuesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius confirmed that she made calls to a total of five companies and organizations on behalf of a campaign that aims to raise public participation and awareness about the Affordable Care Act, the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" reports (Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 6/4).
She confirmed that she placed calls to two of the groups -- the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the tax-preparation firm H&R Block -- to discuss ACA funding but noted that HHS does not regulate those two organizations, according to the Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire" (Corbett Dooren, "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 6/4). Sebelius also made calls to three HHS-regulated companies (Pear, New York Times, 6/4).
The hearing comes on the heels of growing Republican-led scrutiny over Sebelius' solicitations for donations to the outreach campaign by Enroll America, a not-for-profit coalition of health reform advocates.
In March, Sebelius started soliciting private donations as HHS faced lower-than-expected funding from Congress to implement the ACA. HHS in April confirmed Sebelius' donation requests, and a spokesperson said her actions are not illegal or improper because she has not made fundraising requests to groups regulated by the department.
However, Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have called for formal investigations and made information requests about Sebelius' solicitations.
Last week, three Republican Senate leaders three Republican Senate leaders wrote to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson asking that his office launch a probe, noting that Sebelius' donation requests "call into question whether appropriations and ethics laws are being followed."
Two weeks earlier, a group of House and Senate Republican leaders House and Senate Republican leaders wrote to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro with a request that the Government Accountability Office look into the matter.
Republican leaders of several House committees also have written to Sebelius and more than a dozen insurers and organizations requesting details about their roles and contributions to the ACA outreach campaign (California Healthline, 5/31).
During Tuesday's hearing, Sebelius told members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that the calls she made to three HHS-regulated companies -- Ascension Health, Johnson & Johnson and Kaiser Permanente -- were informational and not to solicit donations, the New York Times reports.
Sebelius said she did not explicitly ask the three companies to donate money to the Enroll America campaign, but urged them to support the coalition's work. She also said that she had "never discussed" the solicitations with White House officials (New York Times, 6/4).
Sebelius told lawmakers that she is allowed to discuss the ACA and other policy matters with organizations like Enroll America under a provision of the Public Health Act. The law allows the HHS secretary to support and encourage others to support not-for-profit groups that support public health activities, "Washington Wire" reports.
Sebelius noted, "I have promoted and discussed outreach and education activities not only around partnerships with Enroll America but with dozens of organizations for a very long time" ("Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 6/4). She added that federal law does not limit her to only asking for donations from entities that are not regulated by HHS. "I could legally solicit funds from anybody regulated by our office. I chose not to do that," she said (Morgan, Reuters, 6/4).
Sebelius also denied allegations that companies were pressured to donate after speaking with her, "Wonkblog" reports. "If they felt pressure, they misunderstood," she said ("Wonkblog," Washington Post, 6/4).
At least one Democratic lawmaker defended Sebelius during the hearing (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 6/4). Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said, "I hope the accusation that you are using every legal resource at your disposal is something that's true," adding, "If you're not doing that, I would be taking you to task" ("Wonkblog," Washington Post, 6/4).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.