A trio of Democratic Senators has written the Department of Health and Human Services demanding more information on the money it has spent on a public relations campaign to effectively undermine Obamacare.
In their letter, Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) request specific expenditures the department has made on a series of anti-Obamacare testimonial videos posted to HHS’ website. They also suggest that the department's Secretary, Tom Price, may have violated the Anti-Lobbying Act in encouraging repeal-and-replace efforts.
“We are concerned that the use of appropriated funds to promote legislation pending before Congress violate both HHS’s constitutional responsibility to implement existing law, and legal prohibitions against using taxpayer dollars to lobby in favor of pending legislation,” the senators write. “The ACA is the law of the land, and HHS officials have an obligation to uphold and implement it.”
The letter comes on the heels of an investigation by The Daily Beast revealing that HHS produced anti-Obama videos with funds from a budget meant to help promote the Affordable Care Act. Representatives for the department refused to comment for that piece and continue to not answer questions about the origin of the video funding. But in an email on Friday afternoon, HHS' national spokesperson, Alleigh Marré, said that the videos fell within the department's mission "to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans."
"As evidenced by these important and educational testimonials, the status quo has made that impossible for millions of Americans," Marré emailed. "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.”
Those videos were just one component of an anti-Obamacare PR effort undertaken by a department that is ostensibly tasked with implementing the law. In addition, HHS has scrubbed mentions of the Affordable Care Act off of its website and erased sections that were used to help consumers understand and buy insurance.
But it was Price's tweets that Senators suggested may have violated law prohibiting the department from engaging in forms of covert propaganda. "The Anti-Lobbying Act precludes federal employees from participating in 'substantial grass roots' lobbying campaigns designed to encourage the public to contact members of Congress and pressure them on legislative matters," they write in their letter.
An HHS official disputed the notion that either Price's tweets or the videos overstepped legal bounds under the department's appropriations statute. Both, said an aide, were efforts at "informing the public about the need to improve the status quo" which was "well within [HHS'] authority to educate and inform."
"It is important for the public to understand the challenges that the Affordable Care Act has created for many of our citizens," the official added.
Critics don't see the department's PR effort as educational. Rather, they've deemed it a form of sabotage, arguing that it is part of a broader campaign from the Trump administration to facilitate the law’s collapse so that lawmakers come together around a conservative replacement. Since the publication of The Daily Beast story, more data points have emerged to support this theory.
On Thursday, it was reported that the administration had ended contracts in 18 cities in which local institutions were given resources to help shoppers try and purchase insurance. On Friday, it was reported that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was ending two Obamacare outreach contracts with the same general tasks.
In writing their letter, Schatz, Booker, and Murphy join several other lawmakers -- all Democrats -- who have requested information from HHS about its approach to implementing Obamacare. Senators have also requested that the Government Accountability Office run, what would effectively be, an audit to determine how HHS has spent money on Obamacare implementation and promotion.
A PDF copy of the Schatz, Booker, Murphy letter is here.