General Accounting Office To Launch Investigation Into Medicare Advertising Campaign
The General Accounting Office will launch an investigation into concerns that the Bush administration is using federally funded advertisements and brochures about the new Medicare law (HR 1) for "political purposes," the Washington Post reports (Goldstein, Washington Post, 2/7). The administration has purchased $9.5 million in 30-second television spots to inform beneficiaries about changes to Medicare. The spots, which will appear on network and cable television stations nationwide through March, address some criticisms of the law and will be paid for out of $1 billion in federal funds set aside to implement changes to the program (California Healthline, 2/6). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and several other Democratic senators sent a letter to the GAO claiming that the advertisements are "propaganda" and an illegal use of taxpayer money, according to the Boston Herald. Kennedy said, "If there's anyone who thinks that the sole purpose of these ads isn't to promote President Bush's reelection, they must come from another planet, probably from Mars." The letter also raised concerns about the appropriateness of hiring Virginia-based advertising firm National Media -- which is handling some aspects of Bush's re-election campaign -- for the ads. In response, the GAO agreed to launch a "legal inquiry" into the ad campaign; the Democrats said that CMS officials should suspend the ad campaign pending the results of the GAO investigation. Meanwhile, House Democrats have asked internal investigators at HHS to conduct a similar investigation, also contending that the advertisements were politically motivated (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 2/7).
The National Taxpayers Union has sent a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson calling for the advertisements to be halted. Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said his group would file a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday to determine whether HHS "used a competitive bidding process to hire" National Media for the campaign. HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce defended the campaign, saying that the new Medicare law requires HHS to "broadly disseminate information to ... eligible individuals regarding the coverage provided by the Medicare prescription drug benefit" (Pierce, Roll Call, 2/9). He added that HHS officials "worked to keep politics out of the ads," the Herald reports (Boston Herald, 2/7).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Friday said he opposes enacting changes to the Medicare law this year because the provisions in the legislation "should be given a chance to work" first, the AP/Washington Times reports. Several senators have pledged to push for changes to the law. Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have proposed allowing the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and allowing the reimportation of cheaper U.S.-made prescription drugs from Canada. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has proposed changing the legislation to enforce the $400 billion price limit on the law that the Bush administration set last year (AP/Washington Times, 2/7). Administration officials have said that according to the Office of Management and Budget, the Medicare legislation will cost $534 billion over the next 10 years, $139 billion more than estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. The FY 2005 budget proposal Bush released Monday acknowledges the higher estimate (California Healthline, 2/6). Frist said he was "not troubled" by the new estimate, noting that the CBO is standing by its $395 billion estimate. In response to proposed changes allowing the reimportation of prescription drugs, he said that recent government reports have "reinforced concerns" about the safety of the practice, according to the AP/Times. "I have not seen a proposed change that I am supportive of yet," he said (AP/Washington Times, 2/7).
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is scheduled to hold its first formal meeting in more than four months on Thursday, just days after Chair Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.) disclosed that the committee is conducting an "informal fact-finding" probe into bribery accusations related to the November House vote on the Medicare law, Roll Call reports (Bresnahan/Chappie, Roll Call, 2/9). 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 added 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.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called for an ethics investigation into the allegations (California Healthline, 2/6). According to Roll Call, it is "unclear" if the Smith case will be discussed during the meeting of the full committee Thursday. However, there is "intense pressure" from House Democratic leaders on the committee for a formal investigation into the Medicare vote, and Senior House Democratic aides have said that one of their members will likely file a complaint if the ethics committee does not fully explore the case, Roll Call reports (Bresnahan/Chappie, Roll Call, 2/9).
Bush on Sunday in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" discussed his proposed fiscal year 2005 budget and provisions of the new Medicare law. Bush said he "strongly felt" that if the Medicare law did not include "modern" provisions -- such as a pilot project to test competition among private health plans and traditional, fee-for-service Medicare and a provision allowing the creation of health savings accounts for individuals -- to encourage U.S. residents to "take more control over their health care decisions, we would have even a worse financial picture in the long run." Bush added, "I believe Medicare is going to not only make the system work better for seniors but is going to help the fiscal situation of our long term projection." When asked why he thinks he is perceived as "such a divider" and not a "uniter," Bush said that uniting the country is the "hardest part of being the president," citing the Medicare law as "a classic case." Bush said, "The Medicare bill was a tough vote, but the Medicare bill is a bill that a lot of people could have signed on to and had it not been for kind of the sense of, well, 'Bush might win, we might lose,' you know, or 'Bush might lose, we might win' kind of attitude" (Russert, "Meet the Press," NBC, 2/8). The complete transcript of the interview is available online.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.