GAO looking into improper HHS healthcare tweets

GAO looking into improper HHS healthcare tweets
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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is looking into allegations that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) used federal funds earmarked for ObamaCare to push for the law’s repeal.

They are doing so at the request of Democrats, who asked the GAO in June to look into whether tweets from HHS supporting the GOP's healthcare bill violated a law prohibiting agencies from using appropriated money to advocate for or against legislation.

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“GAO accepts your request as work that is within the scope of its authority,” reads the letter from Katherine Siggerud, the agency’s director of congressional relations, to Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban Retirement bill blocked in Senate amid fight over amendments Senate Democrats call on White House to abandon plan to collect DNA from migrants MORE (D-Wash.), one of the lawmakers asking for a review.

While the correspondence is a month old, the GAO’s reply had not yet been made public. The Washington Post obtained and posted both letters on Thursday. 

The independent office is tasked with being a watchdog for Congress and investigating how the federal government spends public funds.

It’s unclear where the GAO is in the process, and a spokesman for the agency said that there is no timeline for the review at the moment. If a violation is found, HHS must issue a report on the matter. 

The top Democrats on congressional panels dealing with taxes and healthcare — Murray and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream Booker, Sanders propose new federal agency to control drug prices Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant MORE (Ore.) and Reps. Richard Neal (Mass.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) — sent the complaint to the GAO, citing tweets that specifically mention the House Republican healthcare legislation.

“The @HHSGov and @HHSMedia accounts have repeatedly called for passage of the pending Republican healthcare legislation [the American Health Care Act], explicitly using its acronym, AHCA. The accounts also use a popular Republican moniker, ‘#RepealAndReplace,’ in tweets that echo the Administration’s call to repeal the ACA,” Murray and the others wrote. 

Clicking on the hashtag leads to tweets from outside groups that are also advocating for the GOP bill, in some cases telling people to call members of Congress.

“By using the hashtag ‘RepealandReplace,’ the Department appears to be appealing to the public to contact Congress in favor of pending legislation in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition,” the letter continues.

Democrats also point to some department videos posted on Twitter and Facebook showing Americans who say ObamaCare has harmed them in an effort to push for the law’s repeal. 

The profiles of the small-business owners look like they were created by HHS, the lawmakers complain.

“These videos, which appear to have been produced by the Department, bear no information identifying the Department as the source of the videos,” their letter continues. “If individuals took these clips, and reposted or otherwise rebroadcasted the videos separate from the initial tweet, this would appear to be a violation of the prohibition on agency engaging in covert propaganda.”

Murray and her congressional colleagues are arguing that the social media posts may violate the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which bans agencies from using appropriated funds “for publicity or propaganda purposes, for the preparation, distribution, or use of any … publication, electronic communication, radio, television, or video presentation designed to support or defeat the enactment of legislation before the Congress.”

They also point to the Anti-Lobbying Act, which imposes similar restrictions on how federal funds are used. 

“It is the mission of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. That includes making sure that all Americans have access to quality healthcare they can afford. As evidenced by these important and educational testimonials, the status quo has made that impossible for millions of Americans," Alleigh Marré, HHS national spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. "The Administration is committed to reforming the current healthcare system to bring down the cost of coverage, expand healthcare choices, and strengthen the safety net for generations to come.” 

The public relations effort against former President Obama’s healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is allegedly being funded with money originally designated to promote ACA enrollment, the Daily Beast reported last week. 

The video testimonials from people talking about the harms of ObamaCare were filmed within HHS’s offices, according to the report, which cites current and former agency employees.  

It also notes that the Obama administration would hire a contractor to film any promotional videos — which could bill the agency $550 per hour.

— Updated at 3:20 p.m.