PR or Propaganda?

Joe Pitts, May 25, 2012

PRWeek, the public relations magazine, recently reported that the Department of Health and Human Services just signed a $20 million contract with PR firm Porter Novelli to promote the President’s health care law. According to an HHS representative, "The campaign will inform the American people about the many preventive benefits now available to those with Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act."

It’s not the first time the administration has spent taxpayer money to promote the law. You might remember a series of advertisements shortly after passage of the Affordable Care Act that featured Andy Griffith.

He extolled the virtues of the law saying that Medicare benefits would stay the same for seniors. It was deeply deceptive given the changes the law will make to Medicare. Over $500 billion was taken from the program in order to pay for new entitlements. Medicare Advantage programs were deeply cut. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services now estimates that half of seniors on the Medicare Advantage will see their coverage change.

Over $19 million was spent on brochures sent to seniors. When the Government Accountability Office looked at the brochure in 2010, they noted that: "HHS presented abbreviated information and a positive view of PPACA that is not universally shared." Additionally, they maintained that the brochure contained "overstatements" of the law’s benefits.

The gargantuan stimulus bill contained $17.9 million to pay Ogilvy Public Relations to set up an HHS publicity center. More than $1 million was spent on online search ads to direct Internet users to the official Affordable Care Act page. Even though only 5 percent of small businesses qualify for the temporary health care tax credits, another million dollars was spent sending postcards to business owners.

Defenders of the law like to point out that tens of millions of dollars has been spent opposing the Affordable Care Act. We have to remember that every single one of those dollars was privately paid for. Outside groups are free to spend money to criticize or promote the law. The First Amendment protects the right of private citizens to speak in the public square. It doesn’t say that the government gets to spend equally.

Despite all the money spent, few minds have been changed. A March ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 52 percent of Americans oppose the law. An overwhelming 67 percent believe the Supreme Court should at least overturn the individual mandate to purchase insurance.

Present day PR can’t change the past, and it can’t change the law. The American people were promised that the health care law would be openly debated. Last week, the Energy and Commerce Committee released information showing that the White House cut a deal with the big drug makers behind closed doors. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of American, PhRMA, offered to support the law once they were given assurances about how their industry would be treated.

That handshake agreement wasn’t reached in front of C-SPAN cameras like the President promised on the campaign trail. The American people were also promised that every American family would be able to save $2,500 a year on the insurance premiums. Not only have these savings failed to materialize, but those in the individual insurance market have actually seen their premiums go up as a result of the law.

Multiple Congressional committees are investigating whether government propaganda laws were violated. At the end of the day, the administration may be within the law. However, we have to ask whether this money is being spent wisely.

HHS already has a vast public affairs department that is supposed to be communicating about the agency’s work. With deficits running through the roof, HHS is finding ways to spend taxpayer money to promote more spending of taxpayer money. That doesn’t sound like a good way to spend all the money we’re borrowing from China.

Congressman Joe Pitts, a Republican, represents Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional District, which includes Lancaster County and parts of Chester County and Berks County.

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