By Sam Baker - 05/23/13 09:00 AM EDT
The links between a nonprofit promoting President Obama’s healthcare law and the White House have created an “air of expectation” that insurers will contribute to the group, according to an insurance industry official.
Current and former administration officials have taken on leadership and fundraising roles for Enroll America, a nonprofit aiming to make sure people sign up for new coverage options. As the ties grow deeper, the organization has come to feel like “just an arm of the administration,” said one official who works closely with insurers.
They say it puts inappropriate pressure on insurers, who will need the department’s approval to sell their products through a federally run insurance exchange in more than half the country.
“Companies and organizations should never be pressured for money because it sends the message that contributions are necessary to secure favorable regulatory decisions — creating a ‘pay to play’ environment — or to avoid regulatory reprisals,” Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee said in a recent letter to Sebelius.
The White House and the Health Department have defended Sebelius, saying her fundraising is legal and consistent with the George W. Bush administration’s effort to publicize Medicare’s prescription drug benefit when it came into effect in 2006.
“We are aggressively engaging in a wide range of stakeholder conversations about the president’s healthcare law, as was done ... in previous administrations implementing Medicare Part D and the children’s health insurance program,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Enroll America was created by some of the Affordable Care Act’s most ardent supporters, with a newly targeted mission of promoting enrollment in the law’s new insurance exchanges.
In addition to Sebelius’s involvement, Obama himself made a vague but personal appeal for a close partnership with insurers, which some in the industry saw as a precursor to direct fundraising pitches.
Several industry sources also believe the White House orchestrated a recent leadership change in which a former administration official took the reins of Enroll America. The group’s chairman disputed that account.
At the beginning of this year, Anne Filipic left the White House Office of Public Engagement to become president of Enroll America.
Officials in the insurance industry believe the White House pushed for the change, fearing that the group’s origins in political advocacy were not ideally suited to the massive and focused enrollment campaign.
Enroll America was founded by Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA. Pollack, who remains the chairman of the group’s board, said the hire came from his own desire to make Enroll America more effective.
“This was not a product of someone saying, we want you to do this or that,” he said. “There is not a single person who told me to hire X or Y, Anne or someone else, for this position.”
Many insurers are wary of Enroll America. Several large companies have not donated at all, or made only pro forma contributions when the organization first got off the ground.
Industry officials said companies are worried about the group’s messaging — they don’t want to write a $10 million check that will then be used to criticize them. There are still big parts of the law they oppose.
Still, insurers knew they were likely in for a big fundraising push, and they said they have seen the White House taking on an increasingly big role in Enroll America as congressional Republicans have refused to provide more funding to implement the law.
As for the close ties to the White House, Pollack said it should not be a surprise.
“There has been cooperation since Day One ... any way we can achieve cooperation, we are eager to do that,” he said.
Obama reportedly sat in for an hour-long meeting he was initially not scheduled to attend at all last month, and told insurance executives that the White House and the industry were now “joined at the hip” trying to make the healthcare law work.
Other big names from the administration have also pitched in to help raise money.
Nancy-Ann DeParle, a former White House deputy chief of staff and director of the White House healthcare office, has made fundraising calls on Enroll America’s behalf.
Pollack said the furor over Sebelius’s fundraising will not affect the group’s mission.
“There’s not even a molehill here,” he said.