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Medicare Probe Relaunched

The General Accounting Office decided Monday to reopen its investigation into the legality of government-sponsored ads promoting the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress will look into whether the Medicare ad campaign violates a federal law prohibiting the government from disseminating “covert propaganda.”

At issue for GAO is a series of video news releases, in Spanish and English, which the Health and Human Services Department has sent out to television stations as part of its media campaign to educate seniors on the new Medicare law.

“We became aware of these video news releases as a result of an earlier Congressional request, and we plan to follow up with the Department of Health and Human Services to obtain more information,” said GAO spokesman Jeff Nelligan. “We will evaluate this information and the propriety of using appropriated funds to support these activities.”

Last week, GAO ruled that some of the HHS print and broadcast ads on Medicare did not violate the same law prohibiting the use of federal funds for “publicity or propaganda” purposes.

However, the GAO decision did criticize the ads for having “notable omissions and other weaknesses.”

The new materials, which GAO collected as part of the original investigation, provide broadcast news outlets with a ready-made story segment, complete with a “reporter” who says she is reporting from Washington.

The New York Times reported Monday that stations in Oklahoma and Louisiana have broadcast the video news releases.

In a letter yesterday asking network news heads to tell their affiliates not to run the releases, Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), along with other Democrats, said the video news releases are “designed to influence local news stations to run stories complimentary of the new Medicare law. … These VNRs may mislead many news stations because they do not identify that they are produced by the government.”

The two lawmakers charged that because they are not identified as government-sponsored, they may violate rules against “covert propaganda” produced by the government.

Lautenberg and Kennedy have the same problems with the VNRs’ content as they did with the more visible campaign of ads that Medicare launched last month.

Like those ads, the two Senators contend, the VNRs give vague outlines of the prescription drug bill’s benefits and do not warn seniors that premiums could be more expensive in some parts of the country nor that the prescription drug card available this summer will cost about $30.

The VNRs also appear to promise savings on drugs with the prescription drug card.

“This Medicare approved card will provide immediate savings on their pharmacy purchases,” says Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Cristina Beato in a translated Spanish-language “news report” provided by HHS.

Democrats have complained that the Medicare campaign does not inform seniors that some drugs will not be discounted with the card and savings will vary widely.

Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said the two Senators informally requested that GAO expand the original probe last week.

At a meeting yesterday, GAO officials agreed to treat the reopened probe as an expansion of the original investigation. CLARIFICATION: Articles in the March 16 and 17 editions of Roll Call about the Medicare probe appeared to quote federal law as prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for “covert propoganda.” The law prohibits funds used for “publicity and propoganda,” while the General Accounting Office has ruled that materials that run foul of the law include “covert propoganda, that is, materials that ‘are misleading as to their origin.'”

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