A top Republican senator is comparing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ ongoing effort to implement the Affordable Care Act in partnership with the health care industry and nonprofit organizations to the Iran-Contra scandal, during which officials secretly sold arms to Iran to fund a resistance movement in Nicaragua.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made the comments on Saturday, after the Washington Post reported that Sebelius is asking industry groups and other community organizations to support efforts encouraging people to enroll in the new health care exchanges established under the health care law.
Alexander said Sebelius’ actions should “cease immediately and should be fully investigated by Congress.” He cited a report by the Iran-Contra Congressional Joint Select Committee, which says “Congress’s exclusive control over the expenditure of funds cannot legally be evaded through the use of gifts or donations to the executive branch.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) agreed, telling the Post, “I will be seeking more information from the Administration about these actions to help better understand whether there are conflicts of interest and if it violated federal law.”
Administration officials insist, however, that Sebelius was following authority laid out in the Public Health Service Act and “has made no fundraising requests to entities regulated by HHS.” “For the last several months the Secretary has been working with a full range of stakeholders who share in the mission of getting Americans the help they need and deserve,” Jason Young, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told ThinkProgress.
He explained that Sebelius is operating under a special section of the Public Health Service Act that allows the secretary to “support by grant or contract (and to encourage others to support) private nonprofit entities working in health information and health promotion, preventive health services, and education in the appropriate use of health care.”
Indeed, officials from Republican administrations appear to have relied on similar authority to promote health initiatives, suggesting that the GOP’s attacks may be motivated by politics rather than preventing wrongdoing.
Shortly after President George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D reforms went into effect in January of 2006, Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), told the House Ways and Means Committee that the Bush administration “began reaching out to develop partnerships” with industry and community groups since 2004, “held training sessions around the country to education our partners” and ran “print, radio and television advertisements” to “raise awareness and assist beneficiaries and their care givers in making decisions about prescription drugs.”
“We’ve worked with the plans, the pharmacists, the states and hundreds of other partners around the country to educate beneficiaries and their care givers about their choices, to help people understand how to make decisions based on cost, coverage, convenience and peace of mind,” he said on May 4, 2006, before adding, “I’d like to make special mention of the pharmacy community before I conclude. They’re the linchpin of the drug benefit, and they’ve been tremendous in helping us implement it effectively. They are working hard to meet the demands of this new program.”
After pharmacy giant Eli Lilly announced that it would “provide materials to help educate patients on enrolling during the 2007 Part D enrollment period,” the company elicited wide praise from McClellan.
“We are very pleased that Lilly is taking this important step to help some of the most vulnerable people with Medicare by ensuring that they will continue to get the drugs they need while working with the Medicare drug benefit,” McClellan said in a press release. By September, the federal government approved Lilly’s “Outside Part D” Medicare Part D Patient Assistance Program to allow the company to provide drugs to low-income seniors enrolled in Medicare Part D “who are experiencing gaps in coverage.”
In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal, authorities brought criminal charges against 14 people, convicted four of felony charges, and seven pleaded guilty. The Obama administration, on the other hand, appears to be legally collaborating with different stakeholders to implement its health care law in the face of continued Republican efforts to deny requests for additional funds to supplement the law’s existing implementation budget.
The New York Times reports that Sebelius “solicited sizable donations from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block, the tax preparation service” though administration officials claim that she was acting within her authority.