Government auditors clear HHS in health reform probe

The Department of Health and Human Services did not violate federal prohibitions on publicity and propaganda with its health reform advertising and technical assistance contracts, the Government Accountability Office said Tuesday. 

Two HHS television ads, however, "overstate one of (the law's) benefits," GAO writes in a letter to Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). The lawmakers requested the office's legal opinion about the ads and HHS's contracts with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber. 

Gruber was paid almost $400,000 for two contracts to estimate the coverage expansion and costs of the new law. While Gruber also testified before Congress and authored editorials in favor of the law during the time he was under contract, he did not do so at HHS's request, GAO said. 

"Dr. Gruber was not acting at the behest of HHS when he testified and wrote opinion pieces," GAO said. "In our review of the contracts, we found nothing that called for him to make any public statements or to have any contact with media outlets." 

GAO contrasted those contracts with the Bush administration's contract with talk radio host Armstrong Williams, who was paid by the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. 

GAO also examined three television ads featuring Griffith. It found that they did not constitute "covert communications," "self-aggrandizement" or "purely partisan activities," which are prohibited. 

The auditors did however find that two of the ads "overstate one of (the law's) benefits when they state that beneficiaries will 'have [their] guaranteed benefits'. Although beneficiaries who participate in Medicare Advantage are guaranteed original Medicare benefits, the other benefits offered by Medicare Advantage plans could change at a plan's discretion."