Following Sebelius phone call, foundation donated $13M to Obamacare outreach group, report says


A new government audit details outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's fundraising requests to outside groups. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A private group provided $13 million in grants toward Obamacare outreach activities last year after a funding request from the Obama administration, according to a new government audit.

But the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said it didn't award the funds because Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had requested the donations.

The independent report from the Government Accountability Office provides new details into outgoing secretary Sebelius’s unusual requests last year that industry groups provide support to Enroll America, a nonprofit formed to boost enrollment under the health-care law. Republicans had sharply criticized Sebelius for making a funding request to outside groups, while the Obama administration defended the request, contending that Congress refused to provide enough funding for Affordable Care Act outreach.

The report is expected to be released Monday. The New York Times reported on it late Sunday night, and The Washington Post obtained a copy of the GAO report Monday morning.

As previously reported, Sebelius in 2013 asked two organizations – the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block – to provide financial assistance to Enroll America. She asked three others — Kaiser Foundation Health Plans and Hospitals, Ascension Health, and Johnson & Johnson – to provide non-financial support to the enrollment group, which has close White House ties.

The report found that RWJF made two separate grants to Enroll America, worth $10 million and $3 million, months after Sebelius encouraged donations in a phone call on Jan. 29, 2013. A representative for RWJF told the GAO the grants “were not made in response to the Secretary’s call.” The consumer advocacy group told GAO it had earlier made a $150,000 grant to Enroll America starting Jan. 1, 2013, to support strategic planning.

RWJF in a May 2013 statement said it had provided about $14 million to Enroll America since 2010. Monday’s GAO report indicates a huge bulk of that came after Sebelius’s request. RWJF also told GAO it provided two grants, in 2010 and 2011, to Families USA, a nonprofit that helped establish Enroll America.

Three months after Sebelius phoned RWJF, she asked H&R Block’s chief executive to provide financial support to Enroll America, according to the GAO Report. H&R Block officials said the organization had previously considered making a donation before Sebelius’s call, but ultimately decided not to.

HHS officials told the GAO that H&R Block’s CEO discussed with Sebelius the amount the organization had considered donating and that Sebelius suggested an even higher donation. However, H&R Block and RWJF officials said Sebelius never named a specific dollar amount.

Enroll America officials told the GAO that the group asked Sebelius to request financial support from Kaiser, Ascension and John & Johnson. Instead, Sebelius asked the groups to provide technical support and advice.

HHS told the GAO that Sebelius only asked for financial support for Enroll America at the organization's request, and no other group had asked for her help to raise funds. The GAO also said HHS didn't offer any favors to the groups she contacted, and they didn't ask for any in return.

"As we have said, including in communications to Congress as early as June of last year, according to the Public Health Service Act, the Secretary is authorized to support (and encourage others to support) programs and private non-profit entities working in programs related to health information and health promotion, preventive health services, and education in the appropriate use of health care," HHS spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said in a statement.

The White House had estimated it would need $30 million to fund a national outreach campaign, according to the GAO report. The White House declined the GAO's opportunity to comment on its findings.

This post has been updated with a statement from HHS.

Jason Millman covers all things health policy, with a focus on Obamacare implementation. He previously covered health policy for Politico.
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