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Medicare ads deemed illegal

The General Accounting Office — "the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress" — has ruled that fake news reports lauding the benefits to seniors of Adminstration-backed changes to Medicare law and paid for by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are illegal. (These are the notorious videos that, in the English version, ended with a woman's voice saying, "In Washington, I�m Karen Ryan reporting," and that were widely ridiculed in the blogosphere when they came out.) The GAO called the videos "covert propaganda." At least one Senator is proposing that the amounts spent by HHS be paid back.

Unfortunately, the GAO ruled the other way on similar content produced by HHS for flyers, and print & television advertisements. A group of Senators and Representatives had requested that the GAO look into this question. I remember vividly the first time I saw one of these television ads. I was furious. It was blatantly political, saying the changes to Medicare provided by this legislation, known as MMA, would "strengthen and preserve" Medicare. The following material is taken directly from the GAO legal decision. Keep in mind the GAO's ultimate decision was that prohibitions against spending authorized funds for "publicity and propaganda purposes" had not been violated.

Because of your [i.e., the Senators' and Representatives'] concerns about the political nature of the flyer, we asked HHS to justify specific statements in the flyer, including references to Health Savings Accounts and the statement that MMA "preserves and strengthens" Medicare....

In its reply, among other things, HHS defended its use of the phrase "preserves and strengthens." It also made changes to the text of the flyer that was posted on its website... HHS deleted the references to Health Savings Accounts, which are not available to those eligible for Medicare. In addition, HHS revised the statement that Medicare beneficiaries could keep their coverage "exactly the same," and the flyer now reads that beneficiaries who are "happy with" their current Medicare coverage "can keep it."

We note that HHS has explicit authority to inform Medicare beneficiaries about changes to Medicare resulting from MMA and, thus, its justification for the materials is afforded considerable deference. However, we point out that the HHS materials have notable omissions and other weaknesses. For example, enrollees for the drug discount card program to start in June 2004 may be charged an annual fee, and savings from the discount cards may vary across covered drugs. In our view, the materials are not so partisan as to be unlawful in light of our prior decisions and opinions

In this legal opinion, we do not examine nor do we express a view on the overall economy, efficiency, or effectiveness of these print and television advertisements. We do question, however, the prudence and appropriateness of HHS's decision to communicate with Members of Congress and congressional staff by placing an advertisement in Roll Call. There are any number of more effective vehicles to communicate with Members of Congress, and at less cost, than advertising in a newspaper.

You get the gist of it. The GAO was not happy, but felt they had to give wide latitude to HHS, since Congress had authorized them to "inform Medicare beneficiaries about changes to Medicare resulting from MMA." All I can say is, the sooner we're rid of these bums the better.

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