GAO readies audit of Sebelius fundraising -Republican aides

WASHINGTON, June 27 Thu Jun 27, 2013 7:38pm EDT

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - A U.S. government watchdog will scrutinize Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's efforts to raise private donations for a nonprofit group planning to help enroll uninsured people in health coverage under Obamacare, Republican congressional aides said on Thursday.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed to audit actions Sebelius took earlier this year including two fund-raising phone calls -- one on April 29 to tax adviser H&R Block and another on Jan. 29 to the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, according to Republican aides in the Senate and the House of Representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The audit comes at the request of Republican lawmakers.

GAO notified members of Congress verbally about its plans, the aides said.

No formal notice has been sent to Congress, according to a GAO spokeswoman, who declined further comment.

It was not clear whether the agency would look at separate efforts by Sebelius to rally other support for Enroll America from private organizations including healthcare companies.

"We have not received notice of an audit. However, we work with GAO on a regular basis and we would be happy to cooperate with them should we receive a request," said an official with Sebelius's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Leading Republicans from oversight committees in both chambers asked GAO to look into the issue on May 16, saying Sebelius's actions calls may have violated federal law and ethics rules, an allegation that HHS vehemently denies.

"They (GAO) are going to gather the facts about who HHS contacted, what was asked, and how close the relationship is with Enroll America," said an aide to Senator Lamar Alexander, top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Enroll America, which has close ties to the White House, launched a state-level private-sector grassroots effort last week to raise public awareness about subsidized health coverage and other benefits that will become available Jan. 1 under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.

The campaign will coincide with a broad range of similar public outreach efforts by federal and state agencies, consumer advocacy groups, media outlets, healthcare providers and private companies including insurers.

Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is supposed to provide subsidized private insurance through new online healthcare exchanges in all 50 states and an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor in about half the country. Enrollment is slated to run from Oct. 1 to March 31, 2014.

The outreach efforts should reach full pitch in the fall with messages intended to help consumers sign up for coverage.

Sebelius told a House panel on June 4 that her fundraising actions were fully authorized under the Public Health Service Act, which gives the executive branch scope to promote public healthcare issues in partnership with the private sector.

The secretary disclosed that she also phoned three healthcare companies -- Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente and Ascension Health -- and talked about the importance of Enroll America but did not ask for money.

Kaiser Permanente and Ascension Health, both established Enroll America supporters, have since made new donations, according to the group.

"Johnson and Johnson has not contributed to Enroll America, but we are eager to work with them," Enroll America President Anne Filipic, a former Obama White House aide, said in a statement.

Republicans, who want to repeal Obamacare, have blocked new congressional funding for implementation earlier this year. Critics say they are now trying to scare off donors to Enroll America in hopes of undermining implementation at the outset of the 2014 midterm election campaign in which Republicans hope to capture control of the Senate.

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