President Obama's top health official on Tuesday strenuously defended her decision to ask two major organizations to contribute to a nonprofit that is promoting the president's new national health care law, saying she didn't violate any laws.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Congress she saw nothing in the law that would disallow her from asking the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and tax preparation firm H&R Block to donate to Enroll America, a nonprofit set up by Mr. Obama's former campaign backers.
"Those are the only two conversations that I've had about contributing resources to Enroll America," Mrs. Sebelius told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce at a hearing on next year's budget.
Mrs. Sebelius said she never asked for money from entities that are regulated by her agency, but she did speak to three of them — multinational medical products company Johnson & Johnson, Catholic health care system Ascension Health and nonprofit insurance firm Kaiser Permanente — on a more general basis about the Enroll America's efforts to promote the Affordable Care Act.
Congressional Republicans have scrutinized the secretary's actions since they were reported last month, with one senator going so far as to compare it to the Iran-Contra arms affair during the Reagan administration. They've asked the HHS inspector general and the Government Accountability Office to examine whether Mrs. Sebelius' actions were illegal or violated ethical guidelines.
Republicans say the Sebelius fundraising drive may violate the federal Antideficiency Act, which prohibits government agencies from accepting voluntary services or donations. But HHS officials contend that a section of the Public Service Act specifically permits the secretary to ask outside companies and entities to write checks to support health programs.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Sebelius insisted there is precedent for her actions, noting her predecessors took similar steps to promote a Medicare prescription drug benefit passed under President George W. Bush.
She also said it would have been legal for her to ask for donations from the regulated firms, but she chose not to.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, challenged Mrs. Sebelius' assertions and requested her agency's legal opinion in justifying the phone calls.
He also said HHS-regulated firms may have felt pressure to donate to Enroll America, even if the secretary didn't explicitly ask them to.
"I can't answer what they felt," Mrs. Sebelius said.
Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat, leapt to the secretary's defense, saying he did not hear "one word" from either party in 2003, when officials used public-private partnerships to push Medicare Part D.
"I hope the accusation that you are using every legal resource at your disposal to get health care for Americans who need it is something you are doing," Mr. Andrews said. "Matter of fact, if you were not doing that I would take you to task. I think you are doing the right thing."
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