GAO Decides to Investigate Medicare Ads

Congress's investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), decided on Monday afternoon to investigate the lawfulness of the Bush administration's use of television ads about the new Medicare provisions, according to Deputy General Counsel Gary L. Kepplinger.

"We will be looking into whether these VNRs"—video news releases—"represent a question of the propriety of use of the funds," Kepplinger said.

The main issue is whether the videos commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) violate federal law by using actors posing as journalists. Agencies may not use taxpayer funds to manipulate public opinion.

The video news releases, or VNRs, concern investigators at the GAO because they may violate a prohibition on so-called "covert propaganda" and materials which are "misleading as to their origin." In 1987, the US State Department violated the same law under the Reagan Administration by hiring consultants to author op-ed pieces and articles in support of their Central American policy.

The problem is that two television segments produced by HHS end with a woman's voice saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting." According to Kepplinger, "there is a difference between an actor person saying, 'I'm John Doe reporting' and 'I'm John Doe reporting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.'— these VNRs that don't disclose the source may be what we refer to as covert propaganda."

Congress is already speaking out against the ads.

In response to the news of the investigation, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts, said today, "The President must be held to account for this deception, especially since a major portion of the extra costs that the White House covered up are due to payments to HMOs and extra profits to drug companies. This administration is showing again and again that its word cannot be trusted—not only on the Medicare bill, but in misleading the country on Iraq, the economy, and school reform."

Bill Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, says that, “Everybody who is criticizing us opposes the law; this has everything to do with political pressure and nothing to do with modern communication. In terms of the VNRs, if news organizations are really lazy then they can take the package and just run it – but that happens very rarely.”

And Pierce is right. Ever since President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier, the administration has come under increased scrutiny, especially eight months before the general election. But in this case, since the bulk of the programs advertised will not be in place for two years major health care organizations and the GAO have questioned the use of the ads.

Hill Democrats and the GAO are concerned that the bill widens the Medicare funding gap of $15 trillion over the next 75 years to trillions more.

 
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