The New York Times by Robert Pear –
May 19, 2013:
The Obama administration’s efforts to raise private money to carry out the president’s health care law have provoked such a strong partisan uproar that potential donors have become skittish about contributing, according to several people involved in the fund-raising program.
White House officials said they did not sign off on the fund-raising calls made by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, but were generally aware that she would be seeking support from outside groups.
Two House committees have begun investigating the solicitations. Five senior Republicans from the Senate and the House have asked the comptroller general of the United States, Gene L. Dodaro, to investigate the actions of Ms. Sebelius to determine if she was improperly circumventing spending limits imposed by Congress.
One of the House panels, the Energy and Commerce Committee, has also asked health insurance companies to provide records of any contacts with administration officials seeking money or other assistance for President Obama’s campaign to enroll people eligible for subsidized insurance.
Reports emerged this month that Ms. Sebelius had urged business executives and nonprofit groups to assist Enroll America, a private nonprofit organization that will encourage millions of Americans to sign up for insurance this fall. Enroll America is led by veterans of the Obama White House and Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns and will use campaign-style techniques to locate the uninsured.
A federal health official said potential donors had become “gun-shy” because of the onslaught of Republican criticism of the administration’s fund-raising practices. A person involved in raising money for Enroll America said that many corporations and philanthropies “are risk-averse and do not want to be involved in anything controversial.”
The government is reviewing bids from insurers eager to sell their products to the public through marketplaces scheduled to open for business on Oct. 1. It is also weighing applications from community groups that want federal grants to serve as insurance counselors, or “navigators,” who help people understand their coverage options.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming and Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, both Republicans, said Ms. Sebelius appeared to be “shaking down” businesses and other potential donors. The House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, however, said Ms. Sebelius’s efforts were entirely appropriate because “we have a responsibility to do outreach” to make sure people sign up for benefits to which they are entitled.
As evidence of the secretary’s fund-raising prowess, administration officials said she had secured $10 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a pledge of about $500,000 from H&R Block, the tax preparation service.
Brent Thompson, a spokesman for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said, “We recently approved new funding for Enroll America.” He refused to say how much, even though the foundation filed a report with the Foundation Center indicating that it had awarded a $10 million grant to Enroll America. The center collects data on philanthropy around the world.
Mr. Thompson declined to say whether the grant resulted from an appeal by Ms. Sebelius. He noted that the foundation had a “40-year history of supporting the expansion of coverage.”
The foundation may have reason to be cautious. In 1993 and 1994, Republicans accused it of promoting President Bill Clinton’s plan to remake the nation’s health care system, and the chief executive of the foundation later said it had been “caught in the middle” of a highly partisan issue.
H&R Block plans to help low- and middle-income people apply for tax credits to pay insurance premiums under the new law. Obama administration officials said Ms. Sebelius had made a successful fund-raising pitch to the company, urging support for Enroll America.
But Gene King, a spokesman for H&R Block, said, “We have not made any decision to join any specific advocacy or other health care organization, nor reached agreement on any amount we would contribute to any specific group.”
Several former administration officials are also trying to raise money for the rollout of the health care law.
Nancy-Ann DeParle, who stepped down in January as deputy chief of staff at the White House, said: “Since leaving the White House, I have contributed personally to Enroll America and asked others to support the organization’s efforts. I have always thought it would be important for there to be a robust private sector education campaign to ensure that uninsured Americans know about the affordable health plans that will be available.”
Ms. DeParle, who led the final negotiations with Congress on the health care law, said Enroll America was similar to private sector initiatives that helped people sign up for the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1998 and Medicare’s prescription drug program in 2006.
Jason Young, a spokesman for Ms. Sebelius, said her activities were legal and had been approved by the general counsel and the top ethics officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. “A special section in the Public Health Service Act allows the secretary to support and to encourage others to support nonprofit organizations” working to improve public health, Mr. Young said.
Administration officials said the private fund-raising was necessary because Congress had refused to provide enough money to carry out the health care law. But Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Senate health committee, said the administration was “undercutting the Congressional power of the purse by circuitously exceeding the amount Congress has appropriated.”
Federal officials knew that the solicitations might be controversial, Mr. Young said, so Ms. Sebelius did not make explicit fund-raising requests to companies or organizations regulated by her department.
Several former administration officials have sought financial support for the outreach campaign from insurers and other companies that stand to benefit from the law. But lobbyists said the response from several profit-making insurers had been tepid.
Jill Becher, a spokeswoman for WellPoint, one of the nation’s largest insurers, declined to say whether the company had been solicited by current or former administration officials. “We are not planning to comment on this,” Ms. Becher said.
Aetna and UnitedHealth also refused to comment. “I don’t have anything at this point but will let you know if I do,” said Donald H. Nathan, a senior vice president of UnitedHealth.
Matt Wiggin, a spokesman for Aetna, which received a Congressional demand for documents, said, “We will reserve any comment until we respond to Congress.”