On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius fired back at Republican lawmakers who accused her of improperly soliciting funds from private companies to help fund an effort to increase enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.
Appearing before the House Education & the Workforce Committee, Sebelius confirmed reports that she asked two private organizations that are not regulated by HHS — H&R Block and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — to contribute to Enroll America, a 501 (c)(3) dedicated to implementing the health care law, and insisted that she was operating under authority found out in the Public Health Service Act and relying on the precedent of predecessors who also formed public-private partnerships to promote health initiatives. The Act 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.”
“There were a very small handful of calls I made at the request [of Enroll America] and two involved actual fundraising solicitations, exactly what my predecessors have done, exactly the kind of public-private partnership that we anticipated would happen,” Sebelius told Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), promising to “make available” the history of officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations raising private funds for programs like Medicare Part D and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
“I could legally solicit funds from anybody regulated by our office, I chose not to do that, but promoting a public-private partnership, you bet,” she explained. Sebelius noted that she made five phone calls on behalf of Enroll America aside from H&R Block and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, including Johnson & Johnson, Essentia Health, and Kaiser, but did not ask those organizations for financial contributions.
Indeed, it appears that Bush administration officials relied on similar authority to promote enrollment in Medicare Part D, a drug benefit for seniors.
Beginning in 2004, the Bush administration worked with nonprofits through the Access to Benefits Coalition (ABC) to ensure that “lower income beneficiaries know about and can make optimal use of new Medicare prescription drug benefits and all other available resources for saving money on prescription drugs.”
In a May 2004 press release HHS announced that it is “making an additional $4.6 million available to organize and fund community-based organizations to help low-income beneficiaries learn about the Medicare drug discount card program and how to enroll.”
“We have an energetic coalition from the public and private sectors that wants to make sure seniors take advantage of the substantive savings the Medicare-approved cards provide,” then- Secretary Tommy Thompson said. “We want to be aggressive in reaching out to these beneficiaries so they don’t miss out on this meaningful benefit to help pay for their medicines.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) — the GOP’s most vocal critic of Sebelius — likened her outreach efforts to the Iran-Contra scandal, though he himself raised money from private companies while serving as President George H. W. Bush’s education secretary.