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Barrasso Demands More Answers About “Sebelius Shakedown” of Companies Regulated by HHS

May 15, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) raised more questions about Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sebelius’ recent decision to ask private sector companies to make financial donations to help implement Obamacare. 

Excerpts of his remarks:

“Today, I want to talk about another important story that raises serious questions about this administration's actions. And, of course, I’m referring to the abuse of power that I call the Sebelius shakedown.

“This scandal was first reported by ‘The Washington Post’ on its front page last weekend. Here's the headline: ‘HHS Asking firms for money for Obamacare.’

“The article goes on to say, ‘Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has gone hat in hand’, hat in hand, ‘to health industry officials asking them to make large financial donations to help with the effort to implement President Obama's landmark health care law.’

“The article goes on. It says, ‘over the past three months, Sebelius has made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, to community organizations, and to church groups and has asked that they contribute whatever they can to nonprofit groups that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.’

“These are very serious allegations against the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“The President's health care law is a disaster that threatens Americans' jobs, it threatens Americans' paychecks and it threatens Americans' care.

“Instead of facing the reality, though, Secretary Sebelius has called on the exact same companies that she regulates—the companies that she regulates—and she's called on them to make financial donations to organizations that are trying to make this awful law look better than it is.

“Well, the Sebelius shakedown is outrageous. She is the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the country.  She holds tremendous power and influence over these companies that she regulates.  Her words and her requests matter.

“One industry official with direct knowledge of the Secretary's funding request was quoted in ‘The Washington Post’ saying that there was a clear insinuation by the administration that insurers should give financially to this effort.

“It's kind of like your boss coming in and standing by your desk and then asking you how many boxes of Girl Scout cookies that you plan to buy from the boss's daughter that year.

“This kind of conflict of interest should be not just disturbing; it would be disturbing even if this were just a minor agency with limited power. But Health and Human Services is not a minor agency. It is one of the most powerful and influential bureaucracies in all of Washington.

“President Obama's health care law gave Secretary Sebelius unprecedented power to regulate a very large portion of the United States economy. She controls a budget of nearly a trillion dollars and oversees health care industries ranging from insurance companies to hospitals.

“On top of that, Health and Human Services is currently negotiating with health plans to set premium rates. It's also setting up the government-run health care exchanges and confirming which companies will get to participate in those.

“Well, that raises the stakes dramatically for these companies and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them to keep the Secretary happy. Private companies and other organizations should never be put in a position where they could fear for their future based upon their response to inappropriate requests from a member of the President's cabinet.

“The American people should never have to wonder if their government is shaking down the very businesses that they regulate.

“At best, asking health care industry executives to donate money for the administration's health care law enrollment efforts is a blatant conflict of interest.  At worst, the Secretary may have violated the law by increasing federal spending without Congressional authorization.

“As Congress begins investing Secretary Sebelius' actions, the American people deserve answers to a number of important questions. 

“For starters, the American people would like to know who exactly the Secretary called, what did she ask, what specific legal authority permits the Secretary or any other HHS Employee to solicit financial donations to implement the health care law?

“Which HHS Officials participated in the decision to ask for these donations? Did anyone else at HHS ask for donations from outside groups and businesses?

“Did any other Obama administration officials make similar solicitations?  What specific steps has Health and Human Services taken to ensure the Obama administration will not favor businesses and organizations that gave money or punish those that did not donate?

“Prior to the latest efforts by Secretary Sebelius to shake down the health industry, well, she has a history of questionable decisions. Back in September of 2010, health insurance companies started informing customers, their customers how much the President's health care law would increase the premiums of these individuals.

“So the Secretary responded by warning insurers that the administration would be keeping track of their actions and that some companies might be ‘excluded from health insurance exchanges in 2014.’ That was not an idle threat.

“Medicare's Chief Actuary had predicted that in the future, essentially all Americans would buy health insurance through the government exchange. Well, the Secretary seemed to be threatening that any insurers telling customers the reason behind premium increases, which, of course, would be the President's health care law, that those companies telling that to their customers could be put out of business.

“Most recently last fall, the United States Office of Special Counsel concluded that Secretary Sebelius violated the Hatch Act. She did this when campaigning for President Obama while traveling on official government business.

“Now, federal workers who violate the Hatch Act, they're often fired, but Secretary Sebelius was not punished at all.

“There are already enough concerns about how the President's health care law will harm the American people. We cannot afford unresolved questions about whether a cabinet secretary pressured businesses that she regulates to make donations.

“A lot of media attention on these scandals has focused on the political fallout, but politics isn't the real issue. The real issue is that the American people need to know that their government is not a thug. The real interest of the American people is in knowing that they have confidence that their government will act in the people's best interests, not just in President Obama's best interests.

“The American people need confidence that the administration isn't favoring or punishing the people that it regulates based upon their support for the administration's pet causes.

“When it comes to these disturbing allegations about Secretary Sebelius and all of the other recent scandals, the American people deserve to know what happened.

“Yesterday, Secretary Sebelius had an opportunity to answer questions. She did not. Today again, Secretary Sebelius had an opportunity to answer questions, again according to press reports, she refused to do so.

“The American people want answers. Members of the Congress want answers. There are many more questions to be asked.”