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Topics: Obamacare

For Kathleen Sebelius, desperate times call for questionable measures to advance Obamacare

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Illinois officials are using taxpayer money to hire an army of minimum-wage community organizers to promote Obamacare, with the goal of boosting enrollment in the program that continues to be extraordinarily unpopular with their fellow citizens.

But this type of shameful and desperate maneuvering has been going on for months, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has been pulling the strings at the center of the operation.

In wrangling the support of healthcare companies her department is now empowered to regulate, Sebelius has solicited donations for “Enroll America” — the nonprofit tasked with publicizing — and thus walking a very thin line between corporate cronyism and outright extortion by a public official.

Enroll America, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is intended to assist HHS in publicizing, promoting, and implementing Obamacare through social media and door-to-door campaigns.

As HHS secretary, Sebelius has contacted firms such as Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente, Ascension Healthcare, H&R Block, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about supporting Enroll America, including with financial contributions.

Sebelius’ case is especially troubling because her department holds immense power over these potential partners. Johnson & Johnson (the world’s largest healthcare products manufacturer), Kaiser Permanente (an insurance company), and Ascension Healthcare (a hospital network) all fall under HHS’ huge regulatory umbrella, so Sebelius has the power to greatly influence each of their futures.

It’s a clear-cut conflict of interest for Sebelius to lobby these entities when she holds such regulatory power over them. By declining to lend a hand to Enroll America, healthcare companies and nonprofits risk the wrath of a spurned HHS in an administration that hasn’t shied away from retaliation.

The invited entities have about as much “free choice” in the matter as Americans will under the new healthcare law.

That’s not to say, however, that many elements of the healthcare-industrial complex is skeptical of Obamacare. Despite its title - “The Affordable Care Act of 2010” - health insurance executives and pharmaceutical companies stand to gain the most from Obamacare and its individual mandate, which requires all Americans to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

With its 20,000 pages of regulations, Obamacare assumes participation by many players outside the federal bureaucracy, including state governments, the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the general public.

If health care power brokers don’t embrace the law, it could easily collapse on itself, a scenario that the law’s disastrous rollout has made uncomfortably possible for Sebelius and her colleagues in the Obama administration.

Obamacare implementation was famously described as a “train wreck” by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the law’s key architects. Recent news that Obamacare has driven up premium costs by 41 percent in Ohio won’t help the effort, either.

Enroll America is the carrot Sebelius is dangling in front of the health industry. They’ve been left to their own devices to wonder what the stick may be.

It’s no wonder that Enroll America’s board of directors is a who’s who of healthcare executives and lobbyists. The eight-member board includes the chief lobbyists for insurance giants Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA (the largest generic drugmaker in the country), and three major hospital associations.

Benign as it may seem, Enroll America is a cartel of cronies, hand-selected by Sebelius. Thus far, she’s used her influence to coerce businesses into joining her unholy alliance of corporate lobbyists and federal bureaucrats.

So long as insurance and pharmaceutical companies play their part in the scheme, they’ll profit off the system, but the rest of us will be left with fewer choices and higher costs.

Erik Telford is vice president of strategic initiatives and outreach at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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