Health Care

Floor Speech

By:  John Barrasso
Date: May 15, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. BARRASSO. Madam President, as I come to the floor today Americans all across the country are paying very close attention to the multiple scandals surrounding the Obama administration--one of the scandals my colleague and friend from Indiana has just so eloquently discussed.

We are seeing headlines all across the country. Today my hometown newspaper, the Casper Star Tribune, had the headline ``Trio of Troubles'' relating to the Obama administration.

What the American people are seeing from the Obama administration is a high level of incompetence and a very low level of transparency.

Here are just a few of the headlines today in the Washington Post: ``Criminal Probe of IRS launched.'' Criminal probe of IRS launched. Just below that, ``Leak Probe. Phone-records uproar ends Holder's respite.'' That has to do with the Justice Department's secret gathering of records from the Associated Press.

Inside the paper, open it, and there is much more. ``Media outlets condemn agency,'' ``Justice Department, IRS scandals challenge Obama's civil liberties credibility.''

Other articles in today's paper note the ongoing scandal over the administration's handling of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. The Washington Post Fact Checker recently gave the President four Pinocchios for his attempt to mislead the public on the issue. The only reason they didn't give him five Pinocchios is you can't get five. Four is the highest rating you can get for misleading and inaccurate information.

Well, we need more details about the Benghazi coverup, the IRS targeting of conservatives, and the Justice Department's decision to monitor members of the media.

Today, though, I want to talk about another important story that raises serious questions about this administration's actions. Of course, I am 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 is 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 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 to say:

Over the past 3 months, Sebelius has made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, to community organizations, and to church groups, and asked that they contribute whatever they can to nonprofit groups that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.

Madam President, these are very serious allegations against the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The President's health care law is a disaster that threatens American jobs, threatens American paychecks, and threatens Americans' health care. Instead of facing the reality, though, Secretary Sebelius has called on the exact same companies she regulates--the companies she regulates--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 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 as saying there was a clear insinuation by the administration that insurers should give financially to this effort.

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

This kind of conflict of interest 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 U.S. economy. She controls a budget of nearly $1 trillion 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 is also setting up the government-run health care exchanges and confirming which companies will get to participate in those. 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 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 investigating Secretary Sebelius's 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?

Secretary Sebelius had a history of questionable decisions even prior to her latest efforts to shake down the health industry. Back in September 2010, health insurance companies started informing their customers how much the President's health care law would increase the premiums of these individuals. So the Secretary responded by warning insurers 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 in the future that essentially all Americans would buy health insurance through the government exchange. So 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--could be put out of business.

Most recently, last fall the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Secretary Sebelius violated the Hatch Act. She did this when campaigning for President Obama when traveling on official government business. Federal workers who violate the Hatch Act are 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. The politics is not the real issue. The real issue is that the American people need to know their government is not a thug. The real interest of the American people is in knowing they have confidence that their government will act in the people's best interests, not just in President Obama's best interest.

The American people need confidence that the administration is not favoring or punishing the people 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.

I yield the floor.