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Philip Klein: Obamacare's empress strikes again

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Obamacare,Health and Human Services,Kathleen Sebelius

In 2010, shortly after President Obama's health care legislation was signed into law, I dubbed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the "Empress of Obamacare" for the vast new powers she inherited. Reading through the text of the law, I counted more than 2,500 references to the secretary of HHS, of which more than 700 referred to instances in which she "shall" do something and more than 200 cases in which she "may" take regulatory action.

Back then, it was scary enough that any individual would have so many arbitrary powers -- from determining what type of insurance every American must purchase to deciding which insurers could sell policies on new government-run exchanges at what price. But in the intervening three years, it's become even more alarming, because Sebelius has demonstrated a continued pattern of intimidation and abuse of her office.

With a nation digesting news that the IRS targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny and that the Department of Justice obtained phone records of Associated Press journalists, the past week has brought plenty of reminders about the nature of government power.

In the midst of these stories, the Washington Post reported that Sebelius "has made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and 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."

Soliciting help from an industry that Sebelius has wide-ranging regulatory power over is clearly unethical, and quite possibly illegal. But it is not unusual behavior for Sebelius.

As governor of Kansas, Sebelius refused to release documents crucial to the investigation of Planned Parenthood and late-term abortionist George Tiller, a major campaign contributor. It was later revealed that in 2005, while under her control, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shredded documents crucial to the investigation, claiming it was part of "routine document destruction."

In June 2010, months after the passage of Obamacare, Secretary Sebelius warned private insurers participating in Medicare Advantage against increasing premiums. Then in September 2010, Sebelius offered a broader and more blistering warning to all health insurers against citing the health care law as a reason for increasing premiums even though the law contains a raft of new requirements that naturally drive up the cost of insurance.

"[T]he Administration, in partnership with states, will not tolerate unjustified rate hikes in the name of consumer protections," Sebelius wrote. "[W]e will not stand idly," she declared, warning that she would exercise her power to deny "unreasonable rate increases."

She also threatened to bar insurers who didn't cooperate from the new insurance exchanges, which the CBO estimates will eventually cover 24 million people and receive $1.1 trillion in subsidies over the next decade.

In a June 2012 letter, the Government Accountability Office found that HHS failed to demonstrate that it had the legal authority to divert $8.3 billion to finance a program that helped temporarily offset the impact of Medicare Advantage cuts during an election year.

Just a few months later, in September 2012, the government's Office of Special Counsel determined that Sebelius violated the Hatch Act -- which bars partisan political activity by federal employees on the job -- when she appeared at an event in her official capacity to promote Obama's re-election. The office referred the matter to Obama for disciplinary action, but he took none. Lower-level government employees are routinely dismissed for much less egregious violations of the statute.

In the rush to pass Obamacare, Democrats couldn't fully flesh out their vision for America's health care system. So they left it to regulators to work out key details, and the secretary of HHS became the one regulator to rule them all. Time and again, Sebelius, the Empress of Obamacare, has demonstrated that she cannot be trusted as a judicious steward of this incredible power.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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Philip Klein

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