Exclusive: Ensign Privately Lobbied Obama Admin For Nearly $1 Million In Health Reform Money

As the new class of GOP lawmakers prepare to assume office, congressional Republicans are increasingly divided over earmarks. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and others are fighting to preserve the practice. On the other hand, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is leading a group of Republicans deeply opposed to earmarks of any kind. Over the weekend DeMint released an updated list of senators standing behind him and his cause. Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R-UT), one of DeMint’s most stalwart lieutenants in his earmark battle, clarified the GOP’s opposition to earmarks, defining them to include any specific grant money authorized by larger legislative items. Referring to the earmarking process, Lee told libertarian radio host Eric Dondero that he is fed up with lawmakers playing “Santa Claus” by doling out money from grant programs in laws like President Obama’s health care reform and economic stimulus package.

However, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), one of DeMint’s supporters, appears to have been playing “Santa Claus” by Lee’s definition, demanding money from the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s health care reform law enacted early this year. Over the summer, Ensign sent a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting grant money authorized by the law for the University of Nevada School of Medicine for “Primary Care Residency Expansion.” This grant program is one of many included in the health law to increase the number of doctors in America. In the letter, Ensign explained that “Nevada continues to have an extremely low number of physicians per capita,” and that the grant would help alleviate the “growing challenges Nevada continues to face with providing access to much-needed health care.”

ThinkProgress obtained a copy of the letter using a Freedom of Information Act request. Below is a screen shot of Ensign’s health reform request letter, and a copy may be downloaded here:

According to HHS, Ensign was successful with his request. The HHS website notes that the agency has awarded $960,000 in health reform money to the University of Nevada for a Primary Care Residency Expansion program.

This is not the first time prominent Republicans have played “Santa Claus” with laws they have opposed. In 2009, Republicans like Ensign smeared Obama’s stimulus as a waste and a failure. However, Ensign (and even DeMint) privately requested stimulus money for their states.

Ensign’s letter to HHS serves as a stark reminder that while Republicans have ludicrously smeared the health reform law with lies and demagoguery, in private they realize its benefits to their constituents. Like every other GOP lawmaker, Ensign voted against the Affordable Care Act and like nearly every other GOP lawmaker, has pledged to repeal the entire law — including the grant program from which he requested money for his own state. Similarly, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has taken credit for Medicare improvements made possible by the Affordable Care Act, even though he too opposed the law. As the Wonk Room’s Igor Volsky has reported, Republican governors posturing as staunch opponents of health reform have quietly worked to quickly implement the law.

The GOP seems committed to playing politics with the nation’s health care crisis. The earmark debate, and the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, are nothing more than political theater designed to distract from the reality that Republicans have proposed no substantial solutions to the nation’s most critical problems. There are tens of thousands of Americans dying because of lack of proper health insurance, and as Ensign’s letter shows, many states are already suffering from a broken, unregulated system of care. But rather than fix any serious problems, Ensign and his cohorts are focused solely on breaking Obama’s agenda so that he is a “a one-term president.”