Democrats Renew Criticism Against Medicare Ads, Request Withdrawal
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and 70 other Democratic lawmakers have written to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to ask that he "immediately suspend" an advertising campaign for the new Medicare law (HR 1) until the General Accounting Office determines whether it is an illegal use of taxpayer funds, CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 2/12). The $22 million campaign, which includes television, print and radio ads, aims to inform beneficiaries about changes to Medicare and address some criticisms of the law. It will be paid for out of $1 billion in federal funds set aside to implement changes to the program. At the request of some Democrats, GAO is launching an investigation into concerns that the Bush administration is using the campaign for "political purposes" (California Healthline, 2/11). Democrats say the campaign "misrepresents what the law does in an effort to boost" Bush's chances for re-election, CongressDaily reports (CongressDaily, 2/12). One of Democrats' complaints is that National Media, the advertising firm responsible for placing the ads, has ties to the Bush-re-election campaign. According to The Hill, National Media was not responsible for the content of the ads, and media firm Ketchum, which with the administration subcontracted to create content for the ads, "is regarded as a strongly Democratic-oriented firm" (Dealey, The Hill, 2/12). Democrats also say the campaign violates a law that prohibits the executive branch of the government from using taxpayer money to produce materials for "propaganda or publicity," the Washington Times reports (Washington Times, 2/12). Democrats have called on CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN to pull the ads until the GAO completes its investigation (Dealey, The Hill, 2/12).
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "Medicare trust funds should not be Bush re-election slush funds." Lautenberg said, "They spelled election wrong and they called it education." However, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called efforts by Democrats to stall the campaign a "disservice to America's seniors." HHS officials said they do not intend to delay the campaign. Kevin Keane, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, said, "We just put out the facts" (CongressDaily, 2/12). HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said, "This is a tempest in a teapot. If this media campaign was running in 2003 or 2005, you'd hear nothing about it" (Dealey, The Hill, 2/12).
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday "sharply criticized the House ethics committee," saying it "misled" him by issuing "seemingly contradictory public statements," on its investigation into bribery accusations related to the November House vote on the Medicare law, The Hill reports (Nichols/Kaplan, The Hill, 2/12). In December, retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) said that unnamed Republican leaders promised to donate $100,000 to his son's congressional race in exchange for his support on the Medicare bill. However, Smith later backed away from that comment, saying that suggestions he was bribed are "technically incorrect." He said that some Republican lawmakers had said they would oppose his son's campaign if he did not vote for the Medicare legislation, but they did not offer to donate any money to the campaign as had been previously reported. Smith voted against the Medicare legislation. In a Jan. 20 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R Ill.), Hoyer called for an ethics investigation into the allegations. Last week, committee Chair Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.) disclosed that the committee is conducting an "informal fact-finding" investigation into the matter (California Healthline, 2/9). Hoyer said his concerns relate to comments from Hefley that the committee would let the matter "stand," which he said misled the public into believing there would be no investigation. Hefley "dismissed criticism that he was conducting a half-hearted investigation," noting that committee members cannot disclose the status of the investigation because of privacy rules, according to The Hill. The committee intends to discuss the investigation Feb. 25 (Nichols/Kaplan, The Hill, 2/12). The Los Angeles Times reports that the Smith case has brought to light the larger issue of "how well Congress polices itself," and several advocacy groups say the matter "points out the need for real reform" (Curtius, Los Angeles Times, 2/12).
Congressional Republicans are "still waiting" for AARP, which endorsed the Medicare legislation last year before it passed, to fulfill its promise "to do a major PR campaign and a wealth of grassroots work to help sell senior citizens on the merits of the bill and counter criticisms from Democrats who opposed the measure," Roll Call reports. Some Republicans believe that the delay is related to an effort by AARP leaders to convince state AARP officials that endorsing the legislation was wise, according to Roll Call. Kevin Donnellan, AARP's director of grassroots and elections, said the group is working with coalitions and government agencies, producing publications and brochures and holding educational forums to educate beneficiaries about the prescription drug card program. He added that AARP expects to provide more education through media advertisements (Pershing, Roll Call, 2/12).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.