Roberts chides Sebelius over health care

WASHINGTON — It was President Harry Truman who once said that if you're looking for a friend in the capital, "get a dog."

Memo to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: Time for a trip to the pound.

Indeed, on Wednesday, the former Kansas governor found herself on the receiving end of some pretty strong criticism from an old friend, and fellow Kansan as well:

Sen. Pat Roberts.

The issue was health care. The pair has long been on opposite sides of the debate. He was an outspoken opponent of last year's health care bill. She was one of the Obama administration's loudest voices for reform.

Since its passage last March, Republicans have vowed to unravel at least parts of the law. They were on the Senate floor Tuesday to begin the siege.

When it was Roberts' turn, he said that even though some of the provisions "will be beneficial to some Americans" — like allowing children under age 26 to remain on their parent's insurance — it will not be cost-free.

"Instead of admitting that their policies are causing health insurers to raise their rates," Roberts said, "the Obama administration has unleashed ... Sebelius to intimidate and silence its critics ... by intimidation."

He accused her of attacking the First Amendment by "threatening to shut down companies" who exercise "free speech."

"She's keeping a list," the senator said. "Some have called this 'gangster government' in the press. As a former newspaper man, I am shocked. I am really stunned by my former governor's actions."

He later added: "I urge the president and the secretary, who has been my friend, to reconsider their use of these tactics."

Roberts was referring to a recent letter that Sebelius sent to America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group. She wrote that some companies were "falsely blaming" increases in customer premiums on the health care reform law.

Sebelius said the costs of new consumer protections and other provisions in the law "will be minimal ... no more than one or two percent."

She did not say that insurance companies would be shut down. But she did warn of consequences.

Her department would "keep track of insurers with unjustified rate increases," the health secretary wrote, and might exclude them from participating in insurance "exchanges" — a marketplace for consumers to buy coverage, set to roll out in 2014.

Asked to comment about the senator's remarks, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Melissa Nitti said, "Americans have seen what happens when insurance companies have free rein. The Affordable Care Act ends insurance companies' worst abuses while restoring consumers' control over their own health care."

Roberts and Sebelius have a long history. He worked as an aide on Capitol Hill in the late 1960s to the late congressman Keith Sebelius, her future father-in-law, and the families have been close. He supported her nomination as Health and Human Services secretary.