U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she talked with health-care companies she regulates, including Johnson & Johnson, about helping a nonprofit group publicize the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Ascension Health, a Catholic health-care system, and the nonprofit hospital and insurance company Kaiser Permanente were also urged to lend support, though no financial contributions were requested, Sebelius told lawmakers at a hearing today in Washington. All three companies are subject to oversight by Sebelius’s agency, the Health and Human Services Department.
J&J, the world’s biggest maker of health-care products, falls most under her thumb as the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for approving the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company’s medicines and devices. Congressional Republicans are exploring whether it’s appropriate for the health secretary to solicit companies she oversees.
“I have promoted and discussed outreach activities not only around the partnership with Enroll America but dozens of organizations for a very long time,” Sebelius said in response to questions from Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
HHS had previously acknowledged that Sebelius phoned two organizations her agency doesn’t regulate, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block Inc. to ask for financial contributions to the nonprofit, Enroll America.
Sebelius told the committee that she has talked to many organizations since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, including drug companies, hospitals and health insurers, “about using whatever resources they have to help fulfill what I consider to be an incredible opportunity for up to 30 million Americans to have affordable health care.”
“So if health-care officials say they felt pressure to make donations to Enroll America, your response would be what, that they’re just too easily pressured or they misunderstood the conversation?” U.S. Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina, asked Sebelius.
“I can’t answer what they felt,” Sebelius said, repeating that she didn’t talk about fundraising.
Spokesmen for J&J, Ascension and Kaiser Permanente didn’t immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages. An executive for Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente, Anthony Barrueta, sits on Enroll America’s board, as do executives with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., the Catholic Health Association, and the nonprofit insurer Blue Shield of California.
Enroll America’s president, Anne Filipic, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail asking if the group had received contributions from any of the companies.
At least 25 million people who lack health insurance are expected to gain coverage by 2023 because of the Affordable Care Act, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The law allows states to expand Medicaid, the government-run health program for the poor, to cover anyone earning close to poverty wages. For higher-income people who don’t get coverage through their jobs, the law sets up government-run marketplaces to sell private insurance policies, in many cases with subsidies for monthly premiums and cost-sharing.
The efforts to help Enroll America don’t differ from work by health secretaries under former President George W. Bush to promote the 2003 law that created a drug benefit in Medicare, Sebelius said. Sebelius said she has the authority under a 1976 law to solicit help from companies, including those her agency regulates, for the promotion of public health programs.
“This is not a statutory line,” she said. “This is a chosen line that I made.”
U.S. Representative Robert Andrews of New Jersey, a Democrat, said there was no controversy when the Bush administration assisted a private group, the Access to Benefits Coalition, to promote the Medicare drug program.
“I think your present activity is entirely appropriate and desirable,” Andrews told Sebelius.