On the campaign trail, President Obama vowed that lobbyists would have no place in his administration, but his health care agency last month gave a half-million-dollar grant to a registered lobbying firm to help enroll people for Obamacare as Affordable Care Act “navigators.”
The firm also has filed a disclosure that it lobbied on the health care law itself.
Craig Holman, legislative representative for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said it’s unusual for a lobbying firm to get a government contract, but the company may have won the grant because of its grass-roots outreach apparatus.
Still, the award stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s campaign promises about reining in the influence of lobbyists in Washington.
Indeed, the firm’s principal, Priscilla Chatman, was turned away from an Obama inauguration party in January after organizers scrubbed a list of ticket purchasers and found she was a registered lobbyist, the Sunlight Foundation reported at the time.
No such barriers prevented her firm from securing work under the CMS “navigators” program. More than 100 organizations received grants from CMS last month to help the public apply for Obamacare coverage.
Although most of the organizations winning those grants were nonprofit and educational, Chatman appears to be the only entity that is a registered lobbying firm, according to a review by The Washington Times. The firm was awarded the grant to provide navigator services in Delaware.
Mr. Holman said the award should place additional restrictions on Chatman LLC, including clearly segregating between lines of business and ensuring that no grant money can be used toward lobbying.
“And now that Chatman LLC is a government contractor, federal law also prohibits the firm from making any contributions to any federal political committee, including super PACs,” Mr. Holman said. “These are a few of the reasons why lobbying firms tend to shy away from government contracts.”
Navigators, including Chatman LLC, are barred from lobbying on behalf of the health insurance industry “and must adhere to strict conflict of interest standards,” said CMS spokeswoman Rachel Maisler.
“Navigators are one of many important resources to help Americans learn about their health insurance options, enroll in the Marketplace, and find the plan that is best for themselves and their families,” Ms. Maisler said. “HHS has run in-person assistance programs for years to help Americans enroll in Medicare and Medicaid.”
In a separate statement, CMS said grants were awarded competitively and that Chatman LLC was in compliance with all conflict-of-interest rules.
Chatman LLC didn’t respond directly to questions from The Times about whether its lobbying work surfaced during the grant application process.
Instead, the firm released a statement saying it has relevant experience to be a navigator.
“Priscilla Chatman has almost 35 years of experience working on the rollout of private insurance plans that offer government-approved insurance benefits, on Medicaid and in reaching consumers with low health literacy,” the firm’s statement read.
“She worked on the rollout of Medicare Part C, Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. Both of these efforts are most analogous to the rollout of the ACA,” the firm said.
According to the firm’s lobbying disclosure forms, Ms. Chatman works for the Livingston Group — another lobbying firm — on behalf of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. CMS was the only federal agency that firm lobbied during the most recent quarter, along with the Senate and House.
During the summer, the firm filed a separate disclosure form showing it had lobbied, among other issues, on the Affordable Care Act.
CMS has said the grants were awarded competitively, but several recipients have faced scrutiny in recent weeks.
The New York Post reported that Seedco, a community development group that won contract work to enroll people for Obamacare, had been sued by the federal government on claims of fraud. Seedco told the paper that it had made important changes, including installing new management.
Republican lawmakers also have raised questions about whether organizations and navigator personnel have been vetted properly.
“It is simply astounding that the administration is urging the American people to give their Social Security numbers and sensitive personal information to people who have not been properly vetted,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said in a statement Wednesday.
Last week, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called on Republican House members to correct “inaccurate statements” about the navigator program.