Earlier this month, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to fully comply with the panel’s investigation into the potentially illegal use and waste of taxpayer dollars through the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) and Community Transformation Grant (CTG) programs. The committee first launched an investigation in August 2012 after HHS’ Office of Inspector General flagged potential “inappropriate lobbying activities using CPPW funds,” but HHS has largely rebuffed the congressional inquiry, offering only a scant production of documents that raises new questions. The CPPW and CTG programs, which have received funding through both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, have been widely touted by the Obama administration as preventative health programs. However, the committee has discovered millions of taxpayer dollars are being handed out to various bureaucratic tasks and pet projects like pickleball, massage therapy, and Zumba, even as vulnerable Americans are left without coverage.
May 30, 2013
Obamacare’s Slush Fund Fuels A Broader Lobbying Controversy
By Stuart Taylor
A little-noticed part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act channels some $12.5 billion into a vaguely defined “Prevention and Public Health Fund” over the next decade–and some of that money is going for everything from massage therapists who offer “calming techniques,” to groups advocating higher state and local taxes on tobacco and soda, and stricter zoning restrictions on fast-food restaurants.
The program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has raised alarms among congressional critics, who call it a “slush fund,” because the department can spend the money as it sees fit and without going through the congressional appropriations process. The sums involved are vast. By 2022, the department will be able to spend $2 billion per year at its sole discretion. In perpetuity.
What makes the Prevention and Public Health Fund controversial is its multibillion-dollar size, its unending nature (the fund never expires), and its vague spending mandate: any program designed “to improve health and help restrain the rate of, growth” of health-care costs. That can include anything from “pickleball” (a racquet sport) in Carteret County, N.C. to Zumba (a dance fitness program), kayaking and kickboxing in Waco, TX.
“It’s totally crazy to give the executive branch $2 billion a year ad infinitum to spend as they wish,” said budget expert Jim Capretta of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Congress has the power of the purse, the purpose of which is to insure that the Executive branch is using taxpayer resources as Congress specified.”
The concerns are as diverse as the critics. The HHS Inspector General, in a 2012 “alert,” was concerned that the payments to third-party groups came dangerously close to taxpayer-funded lobbying. While current law bars lobbying with federal money, Obama administration officials and Republican lawmakers differ on where lawful “education” ends and illicit “lobbying” begins. Nor have federal courts defined “lobbying” for the purposes of this fund. A health and Human Services (HHS) department spokesman denies that any laws were broken and the inspector general is continuing to investigate.
Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate have complained that much of the spending seems politically motivated and are alarmed that some of the federal money went to groups who described their own activities as contacting state, city and county lawmakers to urge higher taxes on high-calorie sodas and tobacco, or to call for bans on fast-food restaurants within 1,000-feet of a school, or total bans on smoking in outdoor venues, such as beaches or parks. In a May 9 letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius, Rep. Fred Upton (R,Mich) wrote that HHS grants “appear to fund lobbying activities contrary to the laws, regulations, and guidance governing the use of federal funds.” His letter included the latest in a series of requests for more documents and complaints about responses to previous requests…
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