By Elise Viebeck - 05/30/13 04:20 PM EDT
Leading Senate Republicans are calling for an independent federal investigation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's fundraising efforts for a nonprofit that will promote ObamaCare.
GOP leaders on the Senate Finance, Health and Homeland Security committees on Thursday asked the Health and Human Service Department's inspector general to probe Sebelius's phone calls to health industry players.
Sebelius has been under fire for the calls, in which she sought funds for Enroll America, a group with close Obama administration ties that was established to educate the public about new coverage options under the Affordable Care Act.
"These activities call into question whether appropriations and ethics laws are being followed," the senators wrote in a letter to Inspector General (IG) Daniel R. Levinson.
"While we recognize that under current law, there are certain circumstances in which Executive Branch officials might be allowed to participate in fundraising in an official capacity, the precise nature and appropriateness of Secretary Sebelius's activities is not clear from public reports," the senators wrote.
The request for an IG probe is the latest move by congressional Republicans to scrutinize the fundraising calls, which some have characterized as a "shakedown" that will benefit Obama supporters.
One insurance industry official recently told The Hill the close links between the White House and Enroll America have created an “air of expectation” that insurers will donate to the group.
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees have launched their own investigations into Sebelius’s fundraising, arguing that the secretary should not seek donations from the industries she regulates.
The Health and Human Services (HHS) Department said Sebelius's outreach was legal and has several precedents in the George W. Bush administration.
The department also said Sebelius only made two phone calls, and several Bush-era health officials have come to her defense.
The criticism of the Enroll America fundraising comes at a delicate time for the Obama administration, which is besieged by several controversies as it works to roll out major provisions of the Affordable Care Act next year.
Sebelius and her department are deep into the law's most complicated tasks, including the construction of more than 20 federally facilitated health insurance exchanges for states that refused to create their own. Those exchanges are intended to be “one-stop shops” for people looking to buy subsidized insurance.
But the success of the exchanges depends, in large part, on whether people sign up for them. Without enrollment from a wide cross section of the uninsured, the marketplaces could stumble out of the gate.
Magnifying the challenge, polling has found a wide swath of the public isn’t aware that ObamaCare is still the law of the land.
Enroll America wants to change that. The group is run by former Obama administration officials and will use campaign-style techniques to target the uninsured with information about their new benefits.
HHS says the effort will be vital to healthcare reform's success because lawmakers have not appropriated enough funds to properly implement the law. The divided Congress has ignored several requests by the administration for more money.
Sebelius is at the center of the storm as Republicans, and even some Democrats, raise alarms about the implementation of the healthcare overhaul.
Republicans have regarded the former Kansas governor with suspicion since she violated the Hatch Act, a prohibition on political activity by federal employees, during the last election. HHS has since rectified the offense.
Progressive lawmakers recently voiced frustration with Sebelius, saying she's too defensive, but many other Democrats defended her as making the best of a difficult situation.
This story was first posted at 10:38 a.m. and has been updated.