Republicans leapt at the news that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been asking industry and community groups to donate to Enroll America, an outside organization created to promote the health law and encourage people to enroll in its new coverage options.
HHS spokesman Jason Young said the fundraising push serves the department's basic goals.
"Part of our mission is to help uninsured Americans take advantage of new affordable, high quality insurance options that are coming, thanks to the health law," he said. "For the last several months the Secretary has been working with a full range of stakeholders who share in the mission of getting Americans the help they need and deserve."
Young said Sebelius has not made any fundraising requests to "entities regulated by HHS."
The Washington Post first reported Friday that Sebelius has made fundraising calls to "health industry executives, community organizations and church groups" on Enroll America's behalf. Congressional Republicans have refused to provide additional funding to implement the healthcare law.
"We have always worked with outside groups, and the efforts now ramping up are just one more part of that work," Young said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) likened the fundraising to the Iran-Contra scandal, saying it's illegal to raise money for outside groups that are essentially arms of the government.
Young pointed to a section of the Public Health Service Act that specifically allows the HHS secretary to work with outside organizations.
"The Secretary is authorized to support by grant or contract (and to encourage others to support) private nonprofit entities working in health information and health promotion, preventive health services, and education in the appropriate use of health care," the law states.
A spokesman for Alexander wasn't convinced, and pointed to a separate federal law — the Anti-Deficiency Act. He said that statute prohibits federal employees from circumventing the appropriations process using private organizations that function as an arm of the government.
"The fact that Congress won't appropriate more money for Obamacare isn't a defense, because the precise point of the Anti-Deficiency Act is that if Congress won't appropriate the money, the executive branch is not allowed to raise funds twisting arms in the private sector," the spokesman said.