General Accounting Office Investigates Television News Segments on Medicare Law Produced by HHS
The General Accounting Office is investigating the legality of HHS-produced videos intended for broadcast on local television news programs in which actors were paid to pose as journalists "praising the benefits of the new Medicare law," the New York Times reports. The videos, which have been broadcast in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states, feature people who identify themselves as reporters and were paid to read government-prepared scripts, according to officials at Home Front Communications, which produced the videos. Several of the videos feature President Bush receiving a standing ovation as he signed the bill into law. One segment features an exchange between a pharmacist and a senior; the pharmacist says the new law "helps you better afford your medications," and the senior says it "sounds like a good idea." HHS also prepared introductions to the segments for news anchors. GAO officials last month discovered the HHS-produced television news segments while examining the legality of federally funded fliers and advertisements publicizing the Medicare law. While GAO determined the fliers and advertisements were legal despite "notable omissions and other weaknesses," it is still investigating the prepared television news segments. Critics say the segments might mislead viewers because they conceal their source; federal law prohibits the use of federal funds for "publicity or propaganda purposes" not authorized by Congress, according to the Times. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, "These materials are even more disturbing than the Medicaid flier and advertisements. The distribution of these videos is a covert attempt to manipulate the press." However, HHS spokesperson Kevin Keane, said, "The use of video news releases is a common, routine practice in government and the private sector." Government agencies have produced such videos "for years" on subjects such as teenage smoking and steroids, but the Medicare materials "wander into more controversial territory," the Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 3/15).
In related news, groups opposing the Bush administration's stance on the new Medicare law have "launched intense campaigns to help seniors dissect the complicated measure," the Long Island Newsday reports. The Alliance for Retired Americans is planning mass mailings, phone calls and town hall meetings to educate seniors about the law's "flaws" and to promote its shortcomings as election-year issues, according to ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle. Families USA this month has begun a $500,000 campaign that includes forums in 20 cities and the distribution of 10,000 copies of a 13-minute video featuring journalist Walter Cronkite and seniors who have high drug costs. AARP is currently training volunteers to explain the law to seniors, and it is producing brochures, buying print ads and beginning a television ad campaign this week. The efforts come in response to the Bush administration's plans to spend $12.8 million this month for 30-second ads touting the Medicare reform. Next month, the administration will air more ads focusing on the Medicare drug discount card, which will be introduced in June. This year, HHS plans to spend $21 million to educate seniors on the drug benefits, preventive care and new health plans under the new law, Newsday reports. According to Patricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Medicare Policy Project, "This is a complicated bill. People don't know much about it. ... There's going to be an onslaught of ads, stories and brochures" (Barfield Berry, Long Island Newsday, 3/15).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.