Double Trouble: Get Ready For The Next IRS “Scandal”

Digby

Yes, they’re already on it:

On top of the troubles the administration is facing over its handling of the attack on the Benghazi mission, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records, Republicans hope to target Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

They are questioning her soliciting of funds on behalf of a non-profit group, called Enroll America, from two private entities, a practice which if not unprecedented is at the very least unusual. Federal law bars officials from soliciting any organization or individual with whom they do business or regulate.

Enroll America is run by the president’s former campaign backers to do something Congress refused to fund: sell “Obamacare” to the public.

An HHS statement last week said that since March Sebelius solicited financial donations for Enroll America from H&R Block Inc, the tax preparation company, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic entity devoted to public health issues. Asked Monday for a list of all solicitations before or after March, an HHS spokesman referred Reuters to the department’s original statement.

Neither H&R Block nor the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are regulated by HHS, the department’s spokesman said, so there was nothing improper or illegal about soliciting them.
[...]

The Enroll America issue is complicated by the fact that Republicans in Congress have succeeded in blocking proposed government spending that otherwise could have been used to achieve the ends pursued by the independent group.

That has given lawmakers, such as Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, an opening to allege a violation of the federal “anti-deficiency” act, which bars agencies from accepting “voluntary” services except when authorized by law.

In defense of the help the department is getting from Enroll America, an HHS spokesman said it is permitted by a section of the Public Health Service Act that allows the secretary to encourage support for new and innovative health programs.

Some conservative legal experts say finding a clear-cut violation of the law is a long shot. “I would be skeptical of the claim that it’s illegal, unless someone made a really compelling case. However, the appearance is such that it at least raises questions,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western University who opposes healthcare reform.

But legal issues may be the least of the concerns for supporters of the healthcare law.

They worry that a political storm over Obamacare, with congressional hearings likely, could discourage private donors to Enroll America and jeopardize the administration’s ability to find the funds needed to reach a public that is already largely unaware of the healthcare reforms.

I wrote about this building pseudo-scandal the other day, and it appears it’s gaining steam. I noticed that on Fox yesterday it came up several times as “yet another case of the Obama administration shaking down private industry.” When I first read about it, the suggestion was that Sebelius was appealing to insurance companies rather than trying to find corporate sponsors for the purpose of educating the public about Obamacare, which is slightly different, but still not particularly scandalous.

After all, if the congress would agree to fund the outreach as any sane government would do for a big new government program, this wouldn’t be necessary.  But naturally, they are trying to make it fail so they don’t want the public to be informed of what the new benefits are and what they need to do to get enrolled in insurance and obtain the subsidies.

But this administration rationale doesn’t make sense to me to be honest:

“The danger” to the health program, said former Obama healthcare adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle, “is that people don’t come and enroll and get insured. That leaves the health plans in the exchanges trying to cover people without any young, healthy people, and it drives the price up.”

I think we can probably count on the insurance companies to handle that, don’t you? After all, these young healthy people who are mandated to buy insurance are the new money machine for the insurance companies. The reason they agreed to offer coverage for pre-existing conditions and preventive care was so they could get all these young healthy people paying for their product. I have a feeling they’ll be more than willing to “reach-out” to this population and help them navigate the new system.

As for using an outside group, sponsored by the private sector, to help educate the public about the new IRS rule well, Houston, we’ve got a problem, and it’s not the one the Republicans cite in that article. (Indeed, one would have thought the GOP would be thrilled to have the private sector step up instead of Big Gummint, right?)

No, the article talks about Sebelius going to H&R Block and there’s a reason for that — somebody has to educate millions of people about how these subsidies are going to work. If it can’t be the government, then logically you’d think that the tax preparation industry might want to step up and do it. It’s advertising for their services, after all. Unfortunately the IRS “Tea party” hysteria is flowing directly into this one with the right wing already screeching incoherently about how the IRS is going to kill conservatives in their sleep by denying them access to health care or some such nonsense. I’m going to guess that these companies are not going to be too anxious to step into that quick sand unless there’s a huge financial incentive to do so — and I don’t think there is.

So Sebelius is in a tough position with this one. However, I would bet anything that there will be plenty of information available via this here internet to guide most people through. Certainly the government web-sites and offices will be able to provide information. I’m just not sure that it’s entirely necessary to have a huge TV/radio/newspaper campaign. Yes, it would be nice for the administration to be able to tout all the improvements in the system and make it as easy as possible. But I don’t think the lack of that will actually inhibit people from finding out what they need to find out. Between the insurance companies, the internet and the usual tax forms, I’d guess we’ll muddle by.

I sure hope so because from the looks of things the Republicans are going to have a field day shutting down this Sebelius plan and keeping the IRS on its heels. Implementation was never going to be easy, but they’re going to do everything they have at making sure it’s as difficult as possible. (And they call themselves patriots…)

As for whether the administration gets credit for the health care improvements in the public’s mind — well, if it all works out, the smartest thing they ever did was stop resisting the term “Obamacare.” That will last a very long time.

If it doesn’t they were screwed anyway, so no harm no foul.

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