Bush Administration Video News Releases To Promote New Medicare Law Illegal, GAO Report Finds
General Accounting Office officials on Wednesday said that the Bush administration violated two federal laws through video news releases that were part of its campaign to promote the new Medicare law, the Washington Post reports (Goldstein, Washington Post, 5/20). The videos, produced to air during local TV news broadcasts, feature actors paid to read HHS-prepared scripts, according to officials at Home Front Communications, which produced them. Several of the videos feature President Bush as he signs the Medicare legislation into law. HHS prepared introductions to the segments for local news anchors. As of Feb. 12, all or parts of the videos had aired 53 times on 40 stations in 33 media markets. The examination of the video news releases followed GAO's investigation into television advertisements and fliers mailed to Medicare beneficiaries to promote the new law. GAO, which conducted that investigation at the request of some Democratic lawmakers who had questioned the use of federal funds for the campaign, determined that the ads and fliers were legal despite "notable omissions and other weaknesses." However, the agency decided to reopen the investigation in response to concerns about the videos (California Healthline, 3/17).
GAO determined that the videos are "a form of 'covert propaganda' because the government was not identified as the source of the materials," the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 5/20). According to the GAO report, the portion of the videos featuring people posing as reporters "violate[s] the publicity or propaganda prohibition" because CMS "did not identify itself as the source of the news report [or] the story packages, including the lead-in script" (Schuler, CQ Today, 5/19). The GAO report says, "Nothing in the story packages permit the viewer to know that [the featured reporters] were paid with federal funds ... to report the message in the story package. The entire story package was developed with appropriated funds but appears to be an independent news story" (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 5/20). The GAO report says that the videos' intended audience was not news directors, but viewers. In addition, GAO's decision said that "some news organizations indicated that they misread the label or they mistook the story package as an independent journalist news story" (New York Times, 5/20). The agency located at least three new stations -- in Atlanta, New Jersey and Baton Rouge, La., that ran the video news release package under that assumption (Pierce, Roll Call, 5/20).
According to the Post, the 16-page legal opinion says that the videos "violated a statute that forbids the use of federal money for propaganda, as well as the Antideficiency Act" (Washington Post, 5/20). Under the act, which prohibits spending in excess of appropriations, violations must be reported to Congress and the president, with "a statement of actions taken" to prevent any reoccurrences, the New York Times reports. According to the New York Times, GAO officials also "expressed some concern about the content of the videos, but based its ruling on the lack of disclosure" (New York Times, 5/20). The report was signed by GAO General Counsel Anthony Gamboa (Welch, USA Today, 5/20). According to the New York Times, "the consequences of the ruling were not immediately clear" (New York Times, 5/20). GAO's findings do not carry legal force, because the agency acts as a congressional adviser (Washington Post, 5/20). However, the agency's "decisions on federal spending are usually considered authoritative and are taken seriously by officials in the executive branch of the government," the New York Times reports. CMS officials are not likely to face penalties. GAO Director David Walker said, "We do not have reason to believe that this violation was knowing and willful, and we are not in the enforcement business" (New York Times, 5/20).
HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said that department officials are still reading the 16-page decision, but he added, "GAO opinions are not binding on the executive branch. This is the opinion of the GAO. We disagree with that opinion" (Los Angeles Times, 5/20). Pierce said that HHS believes "GAO misunderstood that this material goes to reporters, editors and producers and that they decide what to do with it" (USA Today, 5/20). He added, "This was in no way covert, as they claim. This was overt, in every way. ... We provided [news stations] with every technological ability to tell the audience who it was from" (Los Angeles Times, 5/20). According to the Post, administration officials "predicted that the GAO findings will have no effect on their efforts to implement the Medicare changes -- or on public sentiment."
House and Senate Democrats "immediately vowed to try to extract a refund of the $44,000 that the administration had spent for the three videos" and "made it clear they would use the finding to try to further discredit the law," the Post reports. Rep. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he is preparing a bill that would require Bush's presidential campaign to reimburse the funds (Washington Post, 5/20). He said, "The Bush administration has illegally spent Medicare funds on covert political activities. The Bush-Cheney campaign should pay every dime they spent on these fake news stories back to our seniors. I will be introducing emergency legislation in Congress on Thursday to require the Bush-Cheney campaign to return these taxpayer dollars back to the Medicare trust fund" (Roll Call, 5/20). Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) said that the videos are "another example of how this White House has misrepresented its Medicare plan" (Washington Post, 5/20). House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and health subcommittee ranking member Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said they plan to ask local stations that broadcast the videos to run retractions or corrections that note the administration "erred in sending out the [videos]," CongressDaily reports (Heil/Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/20).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.