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Senator says Sebelius should stop healthcare fundraising

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Obama administration effort to raise private donations to help implement President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law came under fire on Monday from congressional Republicans who claim the action could violate the law.

As the Republican-controlled House of Representatives prepared to mount a new vote this week to try to repeal the law, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton asked the administration to identify the companies and organizations that have received fundraising calls from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The committee also sent letters to nearly a dozen healthcare companies asking if they have received solicitations from Sebelius. The list includes insurers Aetna Inc, Cigna Corp., Coventry Health Care Inc, Humana Inc, UnitedHealth Group Inc and WellPoint.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander called on Sebelius to end the fundraising, saying her actions could violate Congress' power to direct policy through appropriations.

Partisan gridlock has prevented Congress from funding the law since it was enacted three years ago.

Administration officials said that since late March, Sebelius has been calling companies in the healthcare field and other industries, as well as private foundations, healthcare providers and church groups, to promote the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Her aim is to win financial help for nonprofit groups that are mounting a private-sector effort to persuade millions of uninsured Americans to obtain health coverage in 2014 through new online marketplaces, known as exchanges, slated to begin enrollment for federally subsidized private insurance on October 1.

If the implementation and enrollment effort were to fail, it could lead to higher costs and jeopardize a cornerstone of Obama's presidential legacy.

Sebelius' Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says the secretary has the authority to encourage support for nonprofit organizations under the Public Health Service Act.

VIOLATION OF THE LAW?

"This provision has been in place since 1976 and has applied to and has been used by previous secretaries," HHS spokesman Jason Young said on Monday. "It was even cited as part of President Reagan's establishment of the President's Council on Physical Fitness."

But Republicans in both the House and Senate have been quick to raise the specter of legal violation.

"I hope the secretary will stop this action," Alexander, ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said on the floor of the Senate. He pledged to ask the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to look into the matter later this week.

In a letter to Sebelius, Upton and five members of his House oversight committee expressed particular concern that the administration may have sought financial support from health insurance companies.

"Currently, health insurers are seeking HHS approval to qualify for the health exchanges ... so that they may attempt to sell their services to the public when enrollment begins in a few months. Your agency also has the power to review the insurance rates that providers wish to charge," the letter said.

The administration is scheduled to begin operating healthcare exchanges in 33 states beginning January 1.

House Republicans have voted three dozen times to repeal or defund the law. They are slated to do so again this week. None of the measures have succeeded in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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