U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Saturday that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius may be breaking federal law by raising money and working with private groups to help roll out the federal health care law "outside of the government."

"Secretary Sebelius' fundraising for and coordinating with private entities helping to implement the new health care law may be illegal, should cease immediately and should be fully investigated by Congress," Alexander said.

The ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees health care policy, Alexander likened Sebelius' actions to the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal.

That erupted when it was discovered that a Reagan administration official, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, sold arms to Iran and sent some of the money through private groups to arm Nicaraguan rebels after Congress refused to appropriate funds for that purpose.

"Only the Congress has the authority to appropriate money," Alexander told reporters in Nashville. "And when the secretary seeks to do things outside of the government, which Congress refuses to do, the Constitution doesn't permit [it] and the federal law makes it illegal."

Alexander cited a Washington Post article from last week. The Post reported Sebelius was asking health industry executives, community organizations and church groups to assist groups like Enroll America, a nonprofit coalition working to ensure Americans get enrolled for coverage under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Asked for comment, HHS spokesman Jason Young said in an email to the Times Free Press on Saturday that the practice is legal. He emphasized that "the Secretary has made no fundraising requests to entities regulated by HHS."

"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, Young said, Sebelius "has been working with a full range of stakeholders who share in the mission of getting Americans the help they need and deserve. We have always worked with outside groups, and the efforts now ramping up are just one more part of that work."

Young pointed to what he called a "special section" in the Public Health Service Act that he said "allows the Secretary to support and to encourage others to support nonprofit organizations working to provide health information and conduct other public health activities."

Alexander has called on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to investigate.

Majority Democrats control the committee, but Alexander said he also will ask for a report by the independent Government Accountability Office.

Sebelius' actions may violate the Anti-Deficiency Act, the senator said. Among other things, the act prohibits accepting voluntary services for the United States or employing most personal services not authorized by law.

In response to reporters' questions, Alexander acknowledged Republicans have blocked additional funds to help implement the federal health reform law the GOP calls Obama-care. Beginning in 2014, the law will require most Americans to have health insurance.

"Well, yes, because so many members of Congress believe the law was an historic mistake," Alexander said. "Unlike the civil rights laws, which were passed with bipartisan majorities, the health care law was rammed through by a partisan majority. Not one Republican voted for it, and as a result it's had trouble being implemented."

The law includes opportunities for states to expand Medicaid coverage to the poorest families and individuals, plus subsidies to help people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level buy private insurance.

Republican governors in states like Georgia and Alabama have rejected the Medicaid expansion.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is trying to negotiate a deal with Sebelius that would let the state use federal Medicaid expansion money to pay for private coverage for the Medicaid-eligible population.