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White House involved in soliciting money for pro-ObamaCare group, watchdog says

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FILE - This Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, file photo, taken in Washington, shows part of the HealthCare.gov website page featuring information about the SHOP Marketplace. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)

The White House allegedly was involved in seeking financial support for a pro-ObamaCare group, according to a new report issued in response to Republican concerns about the administration's fundraising efforts. 

Until now, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the only official known to have solicited financial support for Enroll America, a nonprofit that promoted enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. But a Government Accountability Office report released Monday detailed not only the secretary's involvement but that of a White House adviser. 

According to the report, though HHS officials said they were "not aware" of any federal government officials outside the agency soliciting funds for Enroll America, a representative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation told GAO "about a discussion" in 2012 between one of their staffers and the "Deputy Assistant to the President for Health Policy." 

Though not named in the report, this would have been Jeanne Lambrew. The GAO said they were told the official nudged the foundation to give a "significant" contribution. 

The report said: "According to RWJF, this official estimated that Enroll America or other similar national enrollment organizations would likely need about $30 million to finance a national outreach effort. RWJF told us that the official also indicated a hope that RWJF would provide a significant financial contribution to support such efforts, but did not make a specific funding request on behalf of Enroll America or any other outside entity." 

The White House apparently pushed back on this account, telling the GAO that the adviser did not give the foundation a specific estimate of how much money they needed. 

"They further stated that a reference to financial support like that suggested by RWJF was possible, but in connection with broad strategic discussions
related to national outreach efforts that included discussions of both financial and nonfinancial support for such efforts," the report said. 

Republicans have long questioned these solicitations, voicing concern that they got around congressional limits on spending for the health law and might have breached ethical guidelines. The GAO did not issue a legal opinion or any recommendations in its report. 

The report detailed Sebelius' involvement, saying she reached out to the CEOs of five organizations to "solicit support" for Enroll America. One of them was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which made a $3 million grant and a $10 million grant after the call with Sebelius. The foundation, though, reported that the decision to award the money was "not made in response to the Secretary's call." 

H&R Block was also solicited for funds, though did not end up making a contribution. 

Further, Sebelius reached out to three groups that HHS regulates -- Kaiser, Ascension Health and Johnson & Johnson. However, she reportedly did not seek financial support from them. Rather, she sought "nonfinancial support such as technical assistance." 

Kaiser and Ascension Health gave money to Enroll America anyway. 

According to the GAO, Sebelius sought guidance from the agency's Office of the General Counsel, which apparently said HHS officials could seek support for outside groups. 

Asked about the GAO report, HHS reiterated that the solicitations were above board. 

"As we have said, including in communications to Congress as early as June of last year, according to the Public Health Service Act, the Secretary is authorized to support (and encourage others to support) programs and private non-profit entities working in programs related to health information and health promotion, preventive health services, and education in the appropriate use of health care," spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said.