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Rubio Demands Halt to $9 Million Obamacare Ad Campaign

September 5, 2013

This week, the Republican crusade to undermine the Affordable Care Act went from the ridiculous to the sublime. Florida Senator and 2016 GOP White House hopeful Marco Rubio sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding a halt to an $8.7 million, 16-city ad campaign promoting the ACA's enrollment period which begins October 1st. But in slandering the routine outreach effort as a "blatant misuse of federal dollars," the grandstanding Rubio isn't just ignoring the fact that HHS also runs advertising every fall to encourage Medicare enrollment. As it turns out, when the Bush administration spent $22 million in ads touting the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded the spots had "notable omissions and other weaknesses."

Despite that history and the GAO's repeated rulings in support of precisely this kind of outreach effort, Rubio decried the "blatant misuse of federal dollars to promote a fundamentally flawed law":

Until critical questions can be answered regarding the availability and type of health insurance to be provided by ObamaCare, it is unconscionable to spend taxpayer dollars to promote and advertise ObamaCare plans that have yet to be finalized. While the Administration should be abandoning this disastrous law, instead it is imprudently and blindly promoting poor policies that will harm Americans and American businesses, and misappropriating public funds in an effort to sell bad ideas to good people.

But as the Washington Post explained, the spending by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) isn't just routine. It will be dwarfed by the tens of millions of dollars private insurers will fork out to win millions of new customers the Affordable Care Act will bring them:

HHS regularly runs ads at the start of Medicare enrollment in the fall, according to an agency official, and is now doing the same for the opening of state and federal insurance marketplaces. The bulk of advertising spending on Obamacare is expected to come from insurers, who plan to spend hundreds of millions in an effort to enroll new customers, as well as by opponents of the law.

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy--and the irony--don't end there for Rubio and his Republican allies.
As President George W. Bush began his reelection campaign in early 2004, his Department of Health and Human Services launched an even larger television ad blitz touting the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program. While open enrollment for the new private drug plans wouldn't begin until January 2006, CMS had begun its prescription discount card program in the interim. Democrats didn't just protest that the spots represented "political propaganda" for George W. Bush. As the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg explained:

"You need a microscope to read the fine print that appears for a few seconds that reveals that you must pay an enrollment fee and that 'exclusions apply.' The major 'exclusion' could be the drug you need; the card may not offer any discount for many medications."

Ultimately, the GAO investigated the Bush administration's Medicare Rx campaign at the request of several Democratic Senators and Representatives. (For its part, CBS refused to run the ads until the investigation was completed.) While General Counsel Anthony Gamboa concluded the marketing effort on behalf of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 did "not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition," GAO nevertheless found the promotional materials "contain a number of omissions and raise certain concerns." As Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky summed it up in March 2004:

"GAO's report on the Bush's administration's multimillion-dollar Medicare PR campaign raises serious questions about whether taxpayer dollars were misused for political purposes. Although the campaign is not technically illegal, it was found to include `notable omissions and other weaknesses,' to have a `political tone,' and have the appearance of `an attempt to persuade the public to the administration's point of view.'"

Still, the controversy wasn't quite over. Just two months later in May 2004, the GAO ruled that Medicare "news" videos produced by the administration for distribution to broadcast news outlets (so-called "B-roll" spots) were in fact illegal, constituting a form of "covert propaganda."
Of course, you'd never know any of this history listening to presidential wannabe Marco Rubio. Chalk it up to his notable omissions and other weaknesses.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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