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POLITICS: PennAve

GOP lawmakers believe over $1 billion spent to promote Obamacare

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Politics,White House,Obamacare,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Spending,Appropriations Committee,Jerry Moran

Republicans are demanding greater transparency on how much the administration spent to promote and implement Obamacare — and hitting back at President Obama's claim that he “didn't make a hard sell.”

The new effort comes after Obama's claim that the administration met its goal of enrolling more than 7 million people without spending billions.

“We didn't make a hard sell,” Obama said. “We didn't have billions of dollars to spend on commercials like our critics did.”

But both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill estimate the administration has spent roughly $4 to 5 billion to get the Affordable Care Act running, including hundreds of millions to build and repair healthcare.gov.

Some Republicans point to outside estimates suggesting the administration spent more than $1 billion alone on promotional efforts — including outreach, marketing and advertising — to boost enrollment in the federal exchanges.

Critics say the administration is refusing to detail how money is being spent.

“Taxpayers deserve answers, yet the Obama administration continues to evade questions about the true cost of implementing the Affordable Care Act,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the ranking member on the panel that funds the Health and Human Services Department.

“HHS is ignoring Congress’ request for information on how Obamacare funds are being used, and refuses to provide complete and accurate figures on the full cost of implementation to the taxpayers,” he told the Washington Examiner.

HHS officials say that they have provided details on spending consistent with other routine budget requests.

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the department doesn't track money spent on a variety of promotional activities and said some Republican charges about the numbers are conflating other costs associated with implementing the law.

Republican aides counter that the department refuses to say how much it spent on fixing healthcare.gov alone and doesn't keep track of spending on promotional efforts outside of direct advertising.

“Maybe the president should have called me for the numbers,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds HHS, referring to Obama's statement that he didn't have “billions” to counter critics. Kingston believes over $1 billion has been spent on promotional efforts alone.

“I could have told him about the $774 million he requested for advertising and outreach in his budget or the $684 million already spent and the additional $52 million spent on celebrity endorsements of Obamacare.”

Kingston’s figures are based on the $774 million he says Obama requested for outreach and advertising in his fiscal year 2015 budget request, an Associated Press article that makes a blanket estimate that the administration will spend $684 million on Obamacare advertising and promotion in its first year and a Fortune magazine article citing the $52 million spent so far this year on ads, including some with NBA star LeBron James and other athletes.

Peters said that in addition to advertising, the $774 million the president requested includes money to fund Obamacare call centers, navigator grants and funding for other in-person assistance for consumers, as well as printing and distribution costs for notices the law requires applicants and enrollees receive.

After pressing for spending on promotional activities, GOP aides say officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, responsible for implementing the law, recently told Republican appropriators their agency obligated $77.4 million for advertising, including the late March push.

That number, Republicans argue, does not include hundreds of millions spent on outside outreach and advertising efforts.

States have their own marketing campaigns, estimated to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, although CMS doesn't track that spending. Some states received federal assistance for marketing in the form of federal grants.

The department also doled out $208 million in grants to more than 1,100 community health centers to promote the law. In addition, Planned Parenthood received federal money to host more than 500 events in 18 cities to promote ACA enrollment and dispatch 500 canvassers to knock on 20,000 doors to encourage sign-ups.

In 2010, when Congress passed the health care law, Democrats controlled both chambers and provided $1 billion to implement the law. But Republicans have refused to provide additional funding for implementation since taking back the House that year.

That effort has forced administration officials to get creative, moving money from different HHS departments around to pay for the law.

The administration's decision to divert more than $450 million from Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's Prevention and Public Health Fund set off alarm bells with Congress voting to prevent future raids after the Iowa senator and others cried foul.

Congressional Republicans have repeatedly pressed HHS officials for a detailed accounting of how their money has been spent.

Lawmakers included a provision in this year's bipartisan budget deal that forced HHS to reveal more details on how the administration moved $1.6 billion from different department funds to pay for implementation. But so far they say the administration isn't sharing the level of detail Republicans sought.

As required, in early March the administration included a justification for its ACA spending in its budget request for fiscal year 2015. Republicans say HHS provided the least amount of detail possible there, providing information on large pots of funds used to set up and promote the federal exchanges but no specifics on the activities paid for.

Moran accused the administration of “using smoke and mirrors” to hide funding, and wrote to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on March 13 for more information.

Ellen G. Murray, the assistant HHS secretary for financial resources, responded to Moran's letter last week. She said the department provided details consistent with “other routine budget requests” and the standard set by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's auditing and investigative arm.

In response to requests for more specifics, Murray said HHS has “obligated” approximately $281.2 million on “eligibility and enrollment activities” and “$665.5 million for IT activities.” She said another $123.2 million was “obligated for federal administration activities, which include employee salaries and benefits, as well as other overhead costs.”

Moran and Kingston insist they will press for a more detailed accounting of spending, broken down by programs and projects.

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