A senior Health and Human Services official was so frustrated last May over the White House's “disarray” on health care before the launch of Obamacare insurance exchanges that he warned of needing a “come to Jesus meeting” with his counterparts.
The comment from Anton Gunn, then-HHS director of external affairs, came in an email exchange with Anne Filipic, the president of the outside group Enroll America, a nonprofit with close ties to the White House that was formed to promote the fall Obamacare rollout and boost enrollment — an effort the two were working on closely.
While criticism of the botched healthcare rollout has focused on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and her department's failures, the email exchange dated May 1 between Gunn and Filipic reveals that HHS officials harbored deep frustrations about the White House's own health care messaging and preparations in the middle of 2013, months before the troubled rollout. (See the email in the embedded viewer below this story.)
The Washington Examiner obtained the email exchange, along with 257 other pages of documents in late January, through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in June 2013.
Most of the emails also reveal a close working relationship between Sebelius, HHS aides, Enroll America and White House staffers on fundraising efforts to promote Obamacare enrollment.
News last May that Sebelius had asked business executives and nonprofit groups to donate to Enroll America provoked an uproar among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Watchdog groups allege her soliciting private donations to help outside groups boost Obamacare enrollment may be an unethical shakedown.
Several Republican senators who have looked into the propriety of Sebelius' fundraising to promote Obamacare say she attended a White House meeting with President Obama, other HHS and private foundations on May 1, 2013.
According to the GOP senators, the private sector’s work with Enroll America was discussed at that meeting.
The meeting, though, is not specified on Obama's official schedule for the day. The schedule lists a 10:30 a.m. meeting with senior advisers on that date. Sebelius' public schedule for May 1 also does not mention a White House meeting.
The email exchange between Gunn and Filipic makes reference to conversations “at the White House.”
Filipic in an email on May 1 said she had a meeting “at Pew” that same day and reported that “folks were clearly energized by what they heard at the White House.”
That remark is an apparent reference to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a large nonprofit.
A spokeswoman for the Pew foundation told the Washington Examiner that none of the nonprofit's staff have attended meetings with the White House or Enroll America on helping to promote Obamacare sign ups. She said Pew rents out its D.C. conference space to non-profit organizations on a regular basis but declined to say whether it rented to Enroll America on that day.
Emails show Enroll America and White House staffers made preparations for a meeting at Pew's offices in Washington on that same date.
An email from Filipic written that evening said "we had a great meeting this afternoon at Pew."
She also wrote Gunn thanking him for attending one of the meetings and for “fighting hard for us along the way.”
“I thought today went well but should not be so painful to get to that point,” she wrote. “Thanks for everything.”
Gunn responded, saying it was his pleasure to help and that he wished he could do more and is glad “we are making progress.”
He then took several shots apparently at the White House's health care messaging and engagement team.
“I think we need to have a Come to Jesus meeting with our friend over there,” he wrote. “I think they are in disarray. I don't know who's in charge on health care.”
“We haven't even been introduced to Paulette yet. Tara is coming over tomorrow but I think her focus is solely on Comms when we need someone focused on what you need,” he continued.
The email does not reference last names for either woman. However, Paulette Aniskoff and Tara McGuiness are two senior White House aides.
Aniskoff is deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. She came to the White House the late fall of 2012 after serving as the director of individual and community preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
McGuiness is a senior communications adviser who handles health care issues for the president. Her Twitter handle is @HealthCareTara and her page describes her role as “all health care all the time.”
The White House and HHS did not respond to questions about whether Aniskoff and McGuiness were the staffers referenced by Gunn.
Since the botched fall rollout of healthcare.gov and the numerous administration delays for key parts of the law, Sebelius has faced a barrage of criticism over the glitch-riddled healthcare.gov website and for reportedly failing to inform the White House of any potential problems ahead of time.
In the middle of the media firestorm over the disastrous rollout, Obama said he was “not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to.” He apologized to the American people, hired prominent tech firms to fix the site, but has stood by Sebelius despite Republican calls for her ouster.
Since the website was improved, the administration has made progress in signing up consumers through the online marketplaces. Nearly 3.3 million Americans have signed up through the end of January, the administration reported, although that figure is still far short of their goal of enrolling 7 million Americans by the end of March — and the number of young adults signing up continues to lag expectations.
The exchange between Gunn and Filipic, though, also highlights the concerns HHS had about the White House’s efforts, months before the botched healthcare.gov website went live.
The White House didn't respond to a request for comment about the emails.
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters side-stepped questions about why Gunn said the White House was in “disarray on healthcare” on May 1 and expressed a need for a “Come to Jesus meeting” with staff.
“As we have said many times, the Affordable Care Act is more than a website, and in the months leading up to October 1, we worked collaboratively across the administration to get the word out about enrollment through education and outreach efforts, such as travel by principals, online chats, media interviews and coordination with partners on the ground,” she told the Washington Examiner.
Peters last week also would not say whether Sebelius or HHS staff were continuing to solicit private donations to help Enroll America promote the president's health care law as the administration works to boost enrollment figures.
Two GOP-led House committees have launched investigations, and several Republican senators called on the Health and Human Services inspector general to investigate Sebelius' fundraising drive.
UPDATE: This story was last updated at 1:20 p.m. Wednesday to add additional comment from the Pew Foundation.