GOP senators want answers on health law's 'PR campaign'

Senate Republicans are demanding to know why President Obama's acting budget director permitted health officials to sign a $20 million public relations contract to promote the healthcare law.

The contract has received widespread criticism from Republicans in Congress since news of the effort broke on May 21. The campaign was mandated by the Affordable Care Act to promote, in part, the law's preventive benefits.

On Thursday, Sens. John BarrassoJohn BarrassoBig Pharma must address high drug prices A guide to the committees: Senate Making transportation public-private partnerships available in rural America MORE (R-Wyo.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Tom CoburnTom CoburnCoburn: Trump's tweets aren't presidential The road ahead for America’s highways Rethinking taxation MORE (R-Okla.) and Mike JohannsMike JohannsTo buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops Revisiting insurance regulatory reform in a post-crisis world MORE (R-Neb.) sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) asking why the preventive-health funds were permitted for that use. 

"We call on the President to immediately cancel this $20 million public relations contract," the group wrote to OMB acting director Jeffrey Zients.

"If OMB did not know the Secretary of [the Health and Human Services Department] took $20 million from the [prevention fund] to pay for the health care law public relations campaign, then we would like to know what steps you plan to take in order to reconcile this matter."

The letter also criticized Obama for refusing to use the prevention fund to pay for a recent extension of a reduced interest rates on federal student loans.

"If the [prevention fund] is a high priority for President Obama, then using it to keep student loan interest rates down should be more important than a public relations campaign," the senators wrote.
PR firm Porter Novelli won the contract after a competitive bidding process. The new was first reported by PR Week.

A statement from Barrasso's office referred to the effort as the "Obamacare PR campaign."

At a Senate Appropriations hearing Thursday, where he is trying to defund the health law, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) called the campaign "highly questionable."

Shelby is the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

He noted that the public relations campaign uses money from the prevention fund and comes "six months before an election" — implicitly repeating Republicans' charge that the PR campaign is political.

"I ask my colleagues: What is the Secretary preventing?" Shelby said. 

Sen. John HoevenJohn HoevenA guide to the committees: Senate GOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget Dem senator: DeVos bigger threat to education than grizzlies MORE (R-N.D.) offered an amendment to the Labor, HHS appropriations bill on Thursday that would prevent the prevention fund from being used to advertise for the ACA. He said HHS has used $20 million in funds on a publicity campaign to promote the ACA. That amendment was defeated by a party line vote.

—Erik Wasson contributed to this report.

Updated at 1:48 p.m.