Senator takes issue with fundraising pitches by Health and Human Services secretary

WASHINGTON – A fundraising push by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is drawing criticism from a key Senate Republican who questions whether she has a conflict of interest.

HHS spokesman Jason Young confirms that Sebelius in recent weeks has asked various charitable foundations, businesses executives, churches and doctors to donate money to non-profit organizations, such as Enroll America, that are helping to implement President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Young said there is a special section within the Public Health Services Act that allows the HHS secretary to solicit financial support for non-profit organizations conducting public health work. He said most of the solicitations have occurred through telephone calls, but in some speeches as well.

“For the last several months, the secretary has been working with a full range of stakeholders who share in the mission of getting Americans the help they need and deserve,” Young said. “We have always worked with outside groups and the efforts now ramping up are just one more part of that work.”

The fundraising pitches were first reported by the Washington Post. Young said Sebelius made no fundraising request of entities regulated by HSS, such as drug companies, hospitals or insurers.

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups have voiced concerns in recent weeks that many consumers will have a hard time navigating the health coverage options available to them next year as a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance kicks in.

The administration has recently announced it would be directing $200 million to states, private groups and local health centres so that they can hire workers who can help consumers pick the insurance plan best for them. The fundraising pitches appear to be another step along those lines. Beginning Oct. 1, people can start signing up for coverage through new state and federal health exchanges.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that soliciting money from health care executives is absurd.

“Moving forward, I will be seeking more information from the administration about these actions to help better understand whether there are conflicts of interest and if it violated federal law,” Hatch said.