By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Lest there be any doubt, congressional supporters of healthcare reform have joined the White House in playing "hard ball" against its opponents. Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is currently preoccupied with writing a healthcare bill of his own, recently asked the U.S. government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to investigate a mailer sent by the Humana healthcare company to senior citizens that it insures.
Baucus's complaint was that the mailer, which warned that efforts under way by Democrats to change healthcare in America could result in cuts to their benefits, constituted a disingenuous effort to frighten seniors. And CMS, as Roll Call reported Wednesday, was more than happy to oblige, launching an investigation at the "direction" of Jonathan Blum, a former Baucus Senate aide whom President Obama recently appointed to be acting director of CMS' Center for Drug and Health Plan Choices.
The investigation resulted in a letter being sent to Humana and, say sources on Capitol Hill, other health insurers who have a fiduciary relationship with CMS that imposes an industry-wide "gag order" ordering a halt to any additional mailings and effectively prevents companies from communicating with their customers about the impact of any pending healthcare reform legislation.
The news that almost an entire industry had been muzzled—it still being unclear whether the AARP, which is also a health insurance provider but one somewhat more friendly to the idea of Obamacare was also being silenced—hit Capitol Hill with considerable force. Senate Republicans, who are thought to be universally opposed to Obamacare, hit back, and hard.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell took to the chamber floor to attack the move in, what for Kentucky's senior senator, are strong words. Here's what he said, according to Roll Call:
"It appears that a particular Senator has encouraged the administration to use its powers to clamp down on an opponent of the administration's healthcare policy. What's more, the administration snapped to attention at the Senator's request. It followed the Senator's advice, and almost immediately the government clamped down on a private healthcare company in my home state that had been sharing its concerns about the administration's healthcare proposal with seniors on Medicare . . . This is so clearly an outrage it's hard to believe anyone thought it would go unnoticed. For explaining to seniors how legislation might affect them, the federal government has now issued a gag order on that company, and any other company that communicates with clients on the issue, telling them to shut up — or else."
What's more, the entire GOP Senate leadership—along with Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, of the Senate Finance Committee and Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, of the Senate HELP Committee—wrote Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius Thursday to inform her they would block the confirmation of any departmental nominees unless and until HHS "rescinds its gag order and allows seniors to receive information about matters before Congress."
On Capitol Hill, short of a threat to cut off funding, blocking a nomination or group of nominations is about as serious as it gets.