Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Last May, Sarah Kliff, then a reporter for The Post, broke a story about the efforts of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to get Obamacare off the ground. She had been hitting up health industry officials for help in implementing the sprawling legislation, Kliff reported.

Many of the calls from Sebelius, noted Kliff, went to boosters of a group called Enroll America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Obamacare enrollment. “Secretary Sebelius recognizes how important the work Enroll America is doing, and we’re thrilled to be working with her,” said Enroll America President Anne Filipic as part of a statement in the story.

Big scoop: Sebelius took heat for her activities from Republicans in Congress, and she has since desisted from the practice.

Competitive scoop, too. As the Washington Examiner reported yesterday, two days before Kliff’s piece surfaced, Fox News reporter Joe Weber was poking around on the matter. He contacted Cate Bonacini at Enroll America and asked about a tip he’d received that Sebelius was “fundraising” on behalf of Enroll America.

The response? Bonacini told Weber that, to her knowledge, there was “no truth” to the tip.

How do we know about these private interactions? The Examiner used a Freedom of Information Act request to procure e-mail traffic between Enroll America staffers and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services. (The documents are embedded below.) Here’s a (partial) look at Bonacini’s e-mail:

Hi all, I just received a call from Joe Weber at Fox News. He received a tip that Secretary Sebelius has been fundraising on our behalf. He asked me point blank if this was true. I told him that someone would get back to him, but to the best of my awareness, there was no truth to it.

Another Enroll America staffer quickly replied, “Did you say that off the record?” Let’s hope so!

The FOIA documents show an extensive back-and-forth over the Fox News inquiry, though a great deal of the record has been redacted by HHS.

In any case, the Examiner reports that Weber, after getting bogus information, never received a call back to correct the record. Fox News didn’t respond to the Erik Wemple Blog’s request for comment.

Enroll America must have an explanation. When we asked about the veracity of the Examiner account and whether anyone had told the truth to Weber, we got this explanation by e-mail from Enroll America’s national press secretary, Justin Nisly: “I wasn’t here during that time – in fact those were early days and our full-time communications staff weren’t hired until months later – so I don’t really have much to add about that email discussion.” No surplus of accountability there.

Nisly continued:

What I can tell you is that we’ve been entirely forthcoming about Secretary Sebelius’ support for our enrollment efforts, and that support is in line with a long, bipartisan tradition in which non-profits helped with the launch of Medicare Part D under President Bush, the Children’s Health Insurance Program under President Clinton, and even the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under President Reagan. We’ve voluntarily cooperated with every Congressional request for information, and no one has yet been able to point to any evidence of wrong-doing or even impropriety. We’re focused on our mission, which is to make sure as many uninsured Americans as possible are able to find quality, affordable coverage for themselves and their families.

Bonacini now works at Families USA, which shares the goals of Enroll America. The Erik Wemple Blog left her a voice-mail message, which triggered a call from Families USA communications director David Lemmon. No talking to Bonacini, said Lemmon. “Cate doesn’t talk to the media on the record,” said Lemmon, who said this policy protects employees from being put in “uncomfortable circumstances.”

No one in the world of Obamacare promotion will bemoan Fox News’s setback. The network runs a stream of often misleading and loaded programming designed to cast public skepticism on the Affordable Care Act. At perhaps its most extreme, the anti-Obamacare strain last fall included a Fox News host raising an eyebrow over the decision of NBC News to deliver consumer-friendly information on how to sign up for health insurance. And just weeks before Weber made his inquiry about Sebelius and Enroll America, Fox News chief Roger Ailes was cited in a biography as saying he would kill Obamacare if he had the power to do so (and he may yet).

The Fox News party line doesn’t assist someone like Weber in his efforts to pry stories out of the Beltway health-care world. Yet it doesn’t come close to excusing the treatment he received. Outraged by the misleading response to Weber’s inquiry, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Enroll America’s Nisly if the organization had apologized to the Fox News reporter. We got this response:

Enroll America was in start-up mode, our systems were not yet in place, and it was a mistake that one of our staffers gave incorrect information about something they weren’t fully informed on and that nobody got back to the reporter — it’s not one we would repeat now that we have full-time communications staff on board.

HHS emails obtained by the Washington Examiner.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.