Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has orchestrated one of the Trump administration’s more dramatic shifts in policy and tone from the Obama administration as he works closely with the White House and Congress to undo the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
On Monday, in response to HHS’ use of advertising, website videos and social media messages criticizing the law, three senators wrote to Price demanding internal documents and cost estimates of the department’s efforts to discredit Obamacare.
Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; and Cory Booker, D-N.J., wrote to Price citing a lengthy report by the Daily Beast that detailed changes in how the law is explained to the public by an HHS now devoted to easing Obamacare’s “burden” and reviewing all regulations implementing it.
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HHS is said to have rerouted money the Obama team was using for public outreach in boosting the law for such projects as flying people into Washington studios to give negative testimony about the law for posting on YouTube.
The senators questioned the legality of the advertisement campaign, noting several laws that prohibit using public resources to lobby for pending legislation or for partisan political purposes.
“We are concerned that the use of appropriated funds to promote legislation pending before Congress violates both HHS’ constitutional responsibility to implement existing law, and legal prohibitions against using taxpayer dollars to lobby in favor of pending legislation,” they wrote. “The ACA is the law of the land, and HHS officials have an obligation to uphold and implement it.”
The senators noted that many of the messages contain the word “repeal” and use graphics with the seals of HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some messages are tweeted on Price’s Twitter account.
The letter asked for budget numbers for the public relations effort, which accounts are used and which employees are involved.
Similar questions were raised this spring by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who are awaiting a Government Accountability Office report on the subject.
Secretary Price himself, being a Title 3 employee, is not covered by the Hatch Act and can comment on pending legislation. On Tuesday, after the Senate voted to consider bills to repeal or replace Obamacare, he issued a statement saying, “The Senate took an important step today toward providing Americans relief from a flawed and failing healthcare law. This will be an important debate about how best to move forward and reform our health care system so that patients, families and doctors are in charge of their health care decisions, not Washington D.C.”
The Anti-Lobbying Act prohibits agencies from “grass-roots lobbying” to influence Congress or other government officials on legislation, ratification, law, policy or appropriation, the senators noted.
Republicans during Obama’s tenure questioned HHS’ use of funds for public outreach to encourage Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges. And now conservative groups are citing the anti-lobbying rules in going after career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Safety Board for similar public campaigns that GAO has called into question.
HHS did not respond to Government Executive requests for comment.
Obama administration HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an email, “As secretary, Kathleen Sebelius certainly was involved in testimony, [and] working with House members and senators and with health advocates, patients, insurers, doctors and nurses, local and state officials, labor and business leaders to get the Affordable Care Act passed.” But Price as secretary “is responsible for administering the law — even if he is working to make changes,” the email continued. “So if the videos are giving false or misleading information to consumers, that would be highly unusual and difficult to defend.”