By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is asking companies for financial donations to help implement President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, months before it is due to take effect.
In telephone calls that began around March 23, officials say, Obama's top healthcare adviser has been seeking assistance from companies in the healthcare field and other industries as well as from healthcare providers, patient advocacy groups, churches and other charitable organizations.
"The secretary has been working with a full range of stakeholders ... We have always worked with outside groups, and the efforts now ramping up are just one more part of that work," said Jason Young, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS declined to identify the targeted donors but said none of the companies are regulated by department agencies.
The administration's aim is to win financial help for nonprofit groups, including Washington-based Enroll America, which are mounting a private-sector effort to persuade millions of uninsured Americans to obtain health coverage in 2014 through new online marketplaces, known as exchanges, slated to begin enrollment for federally subsidized private insurance on October 1.
With Republicans in Congress unwilling to consider allocating new money to finance government outreach efforts, the White House and HHS have appealed to private sources, including the insurance industry, to help with an implementation effort that could lead to higher costs and jeopardize a cornerstone of Obama's presidential legacy if it were to fail.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, blasted Sebelius' action as "absurd."
"Moving forward, I will be seeking information from the administration about these actions to help better understand whether there are conflicts of interest and if it violated federal law," he said in a statement.
HHS said the secretary began phoning companies after getting advice from department lawyers. "There is a special section in the Public Health Service Act that allows the secretary to support and to encourage others to support non-profit organizations working to provide health information and conduct other public health activities," Young told Reuters in an email.
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Sebelius' fund-raising activities were originally reported by the Washington Post.
Organizations like Enroll America are expected to play a key role in public outreach efforts set to begin this summer.
A nonpartisan group dedicated to extending health coverage to nearly 49 million uninsured people, Enroll America's board includes representatives from Teva Pharmaceuticals, the Kaiser Permanente health system and the American Hospital Association, a Washington trade group.
Enroll America President Anne Filipic said cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors is vital to making sure the marketplaces are ready on time. "Secretary Sebelius recognizes the importance of the work Enroll America is doing and we're thrilled to be working with her," she said.
Obama defended his Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Friday at a White House event intended to kick off the administration's promotional campaign with a focus on the law's benefits for women.
The president said he was "110 percent committed" to the law's success and warned listeners not to be "bamboozled" by misinformation.
"This is too important for political games," Obama said. "Regular access to a doctor or medicine or preventive care - that's not some earned privilege, it is a right."
The law is expected to provide health coverage to 38 million people by the end of the decade through the new marketplaces and an expansion of the Medicaid healthcare program for the poor. Some 7 million people are expected to gain coverage through the marketplaces alone in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Republicans have turned up the volume on their opposition to the law. The House of Representatives is to vote next week on a Republican measure to repeal the law. Like three-dozen previous House votes to repeal or defund healthcare reform, the measure is expected to go nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate.
HHS officials say the department has put together $1.26 billion to finance Affordable Care Act implementation between now and September 30, the end of the fiscal year. That includes an outreach campaign that has already cost $240 million, as well as funding for the establishment of 17 state insurance exchanges, and 33 others that HHS will operate in states that are either not ready or unwilling to run their own.
The exchanges are scheduled to begin operating on January 1, 2014, when the healthcare law comes into full force.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)