The Washington Times - May 14, 2013, 06:36PM

A group of Republican senators wants President Obama’s top health official to justify her decision to seek private donations to promote insurance markets tied to the federal health care law.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, and 10 other senators fired off a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday that seeks details about her reported fundraising efforts directed at the health care industry.

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“Our initial reaction is that this appears at best to be an inherent conflict of interest and at worst a potentially illegal augmentation of appropriation,” the senators wrote to Mrs. Sebelius.

Mrs. Sebelius repeatedly has told Congress that it has not provided enough funding to roll out the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” only to criticize the agency for its efforts ahead of key implementation dates.

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that Mrs. Sebelius made “multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and church groups and asked that they contribute whatever they can to nonprofit groups that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the [health care] law.”

The report represents the latest headache for an Obama administration already reeling from questions about the Justice Department’s secret subpoena of Associated Press phone records, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups and the ongoing controversy surrounding last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Republican senators said her attempts to cull money from private industry could create a “pay-to-play” environment in which firms feel pressured to contribute to avoid regulatory problems. They also said HHS could be illegally usurping Congress’ authority to allocate funds for a given law.

“Finally, the manner in which Congress learned about these actions, through the press, is also troubling,” the senators said, bemoaning a perceived lack of transparency in how the agency is implementing the health reforms.

HHS spokesman Jason Young said Mrs. Sebelius has not made any fundraising overtures to entities that are regulated by the agency.

“For the last several months, the secretary has been working with a wide range of stakeholders who share in the mission of getting Americans the help they need and deserve,” he said. “We have always worked with outside groups, and the efforts now ramping up are just one more part of that work.”

He highlighted a section of the Public Health Service Act that addresses the secretary’s leeway in working with nonprofits.

The provision says: “The Secretary is authorized 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.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, also has been vocal in his criticism of Mrs. Sebelius, going so far as to compare her fundraising efforts to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, in which officials within the Reagan administration schemed to sell arms to Iran for the release of hostages and to fund rebels in Nicaragua.

“If the Department of Health and Human Services closely coordinates with Enroll America and other entities, then the analogy with Iran-Contra is strong,” Mr. Alexander said.