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Sebelius defends Obamacare fundraising

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius disclosed new details on Tuesday about her efforts to raise money for a nonprofit group promoting the administration’s health care overhaul.

Sebelius told members of Congress that she has made five outreach calls on behalf of Enroll America, a new organization that aims to increase public participation in the Affordable Care Act.

“Three were to discuss the organization and suggest the entities look at the organization,” Sebelius testified at a House hearing Tuesday. The other two phone calls, to officials at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block, were direct solicitations for fundraising. Sebelius said that she did not request a specific level of donation from those two companies.

The secretary’s outreach on behalf of the nonprofit came after Congress repeatedly denied requests from her agency to increase funding for the health care law. Without those additional funds, the department has said it lacks the resources to run a full-fledged campaign explaining the law to the public and promoting enrollment.

Sebelius has come under heavy criticism from Republicans for her fundraising work for Enroll America. Some argue that she is circumventing the wishes of Congress, and others have worried that she is pressuring companies that are regulated by her agency. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has described the secretary’s efforts as “arguably an even bigger issue” than the Iran-Contra Affair.

Sebelius defended her actions Tuesday, saying that she has placed phone calls to Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures health care products, and Ascension Health, a Catholic hospital system.

The secretary also had a conversation about Enroll America with George Halvorson, chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, a California-based health insurer.

Johnson & Johnson spokesman Ernie Knewitz confirmed that “a call was held with Secretary Sebelius in April.” The company has not provided any financial support to Enroll America, he said.

Kaiser Permanente was already involved with Enroll America prior to the secretary’s outreach. The health plan is a founding supporter of the group and Anthony Barrueta, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president for government relations, sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

“We share the goal of encouraging every eligible American to enroll in coverage under health reform,” Kaiser spokesman John Nelson said. “In Secretary Sebelius’ comments today, she was describing a conversation she had with our CEO, George Halvorson, who confirms that she described their conversation accurately.”

Sebelius also disputed multiple reports that officials at these companies, which the Health and Human Services department regulates, felt pressure to donate to Enroll America after the conversation.

“If they felt pressure, they misunderstood,” she said. “I can’t answer what they felt. I can tell you that … I have made fundraising solicitations to two groups and I did not discuss funding with the other three entities. I did discuss Enroll America.”

She also said that, while she has not solicited funds from any entities that her agency regulates, no statutory language would prevent her from doing so. Sebelius pointed to a section of the Public Health Services Act that gives her a wide array of fundraising authorities.

“This is not a statutory line,” she said. “This was a chosen line. I have promoted and discussed education activities not only with Enroll America but with dozens of organizations.”

Sebelius said she has not discussed her fundraising work with officials at the White House. She has worked with Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, in coordinating her outreach for the organization.

At least one Democrat came to Sebelius’s defense in Tuesday’s hearing. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) lauded the secretary for her efforts to promote public participation in the Affordable Care Act.

“I hope the accusation that you are using every legal resource at your disposal is something that’s true,” he said. “If you’re not doing that, I would be taking you to task.”