House Dem says oversight panel on healthcare law 'fishing expedition'

The ranking Democrat on a powerful House committee is accusing the new Republican leadership of abusing its investigatory powers after they launched several investigations into the new healthcare reform law.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he supports oversight, but believes the Republican efforts on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are politically motivated and probe too deep.

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“I do not believe your oversight powers justify going on fishing expeditions or making extensive requests for internal e-mails and other communications where there is no evidence of waste, fraud or abuse of any kind,” Waxman wrote in a stinging letter to Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Oversight subpanel Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).

Since taking control of the House less than a month ago, committee Republicans have announced probes into three healthcare reform provisions: waivers granted to organizations for a requirement on annual coverage limits; low enrollment in new high-risk insurance pools; and the $1 billion Health Insurance Reform Implementation Fund. They also asked for spending details on about $400 million for comparative effectiveness research included in the 2009 stimulus package.

Waxman said he wants to work with Republicans to identify waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch, but that he believes some GOP requests are unfounded and may hinder federal agencies’ ability to do their jobs.

There is “no basis” for the waiver investigation, Waxman said in the letter. More than 700 waivers have been granted to unions, businesses and other organizations, and Republicans are claiming the waivers are either a gift to Democratic allies or proof the reform law doesn’t work. Waxman took issue with the GOP’s request for the Department of Health and Human Services to disclose e-mails about waiver requests since the department has posted each granted request online.

“If you have evidence that one of these waivers was granted improperly, a request for the internal communications relating to the waiver would be appropriate,” Waxman said. “In the absence of any evidence of misconduct, asking for this much information for 222 waivers appears to be either another fishing expedition or an attempt to bog down the agency with excessive document requests.”

The number of waivers last week increased from 222 to 729, and the number of individuals covered under the waivers increased from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.

Further, Waxman questioned Republicans' motives for investigating new high-risk insurance pools, which have so far been plagued by low enrollment.  

“There have been no claims that this fund has been used improperly, yet you request an entire agency to produce deliberative budgetary information and internal communications,” Waxman wrote.

An Upton spokesman said Thursday afternoon that the chairman is "standing firm" in plans to investigate the healthcare reform law.

"The massive health care law was written behind closed doors, without sufficient review, and doled out incredible levels of funding to federal agencies without transparency or accountability," spokesman Sean Bonyun told The Hill. "We look forward to hearing from the agencies we oversee and finally bringing to light how billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent, laws are being implemented and regulations are being developed."

This article was updated at 3:17 p.m. with Bonyun's statement.