U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), lead Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, today sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing his deep concern that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has yet to comply with the bipartisan oversight request sent by him and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in February concerning tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on public relations and advertising. Similar inquiries regarding public relations and media spending were made to 10 other federal agencies, and HHS was the only one that did not respond to the request.
"In February, I asked HHS and 10 other federal agencies for a complete account of how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. Every agency except HHS was able to adequately answer my simple and specific inquiry," Portman said. "The Department's failure to cooperate with this bipartisan inquiry calls into question its commitment to transparency, particularly in an Administration that once pledged to be the most transparent in history. Perhaps they're nervous that during an election year, Americans will not be pleased that Washington wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to convince them that its unaffordable health care law isn't all that bad. Families and businesses are hurting during this time of weak economic growth and record deficits; finding out that their hard-earned tax dollars were used to advertise an unpopular law would be hard to accept."
In the letter, Portman asks Secretary Sebelius to "take immediate action to respond appropriately to the Subcommittee's legitimate oversight request concerning taxpayer-funded advertising."
According to the federal procurement database, HHS has spent at least $183 million on public relations and media expenses. And according to the Los Angeles Times, HHS is footing the bill for 60 percent of all spending to promote the health-care bill.
In February, as Ranking Member and Chair, respectively, of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, Portman and McCaskill sent HHS and 10 other federal agencies a request for information on contracts for the acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising, communications, or similar services from 2009 to the present. Every agency but HHS has responded to the inquiry.
In May, Portman followed up with a letter to Sebelius demanding specific information concerning a new reported $20 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign to promote the President's health care spending law.
In August, HHS responded with a letter that failed to provide a complete account of how they are using taxpayer dollars. The letter provided none of the information requested by Portman and McCaskill in February.
The text of Portman's response letter is below, and a signed copy of the letter is available here.
September 20, 2012
The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201
Dear Secretary Sebelius:
I write to express my serious concern that the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to respond to a bipartisan oversight inquiry initiated by the Senate's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight on February 28, 2012, and backed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the Fiscal Year 2013 Labor/HHS appropriations bill. I respectfully ask that the Department take immediate action to respond appropriately to the Subcommittee's legitimate oversight request concerning taxpayer-funded advertising.
Nearly seven months ago, Senator Claire McCaskill and I, in our respective roles as Chair and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, sent you a letter requesting basic information concerning the Department's past three years of multimillion-dollar spending on public relations contracts. A similar request was sent to ten other federal agencies, all of which complied. HHS alone has failed to do so.
On May 22, 2012, I followed up on the Subcommittee's unanswered inquiry to request further information concerning HHS's reported new $20 million contract with a public relations firm to launch the next stage of a national multimedia campaign promoting the President's health care law.
In August, HHS sent a letter to my office described as a "response" to one or both of these oversight inquiries. But any reader of the Subcommittee's February 28th inquiry (enclosed here) would know that HHS's August letter was nonresponsive to that request.
The Subcommittee's February 28th request was simple and specific. It asked that HHS provide a list of all contracts for "acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising, communications, or similar services." For each such contract, the Subcommittee requested basic information, including the contract number, the name of the contractors and any subcontractors, the competition type, the cost, a description of the work performed, and the agency initiative or policy supported by the contract. To facilitate the Department's response, the Subcommittee provided a spreadsheet with each of the requested fields, along with a list of the relevant industry codes used by federal agencies to classify contracts.
The Subcommittee has received none of the information requested from HHS on February 28. Yet HHS has no shortage of recent contracts for advertising to account for. According to the Los Angeles Times, HHS's public relations spending represents 60 percent of all advertising dollars to promote the President's health care law. Based on information available in the Federal Procurement Data System, the Department appears to have obligated as much as $183 million over the past three years on federal contracts coded as "advertising," "market research and public opinion," "media representatives," and "public relations." The Department owes the American people an explanation for exactly how these funds were spent.
The lack of a response from HHS to the Subcommittee's request has been noted by the Senate Appropriations Committee. On June 14, 2012, that committee adopted language in the FY13 Labor/HHS appropriations bill specifically directing HHS to respond to the Subcommittee's oversight request.
I ask that the Department respond promptly and fully to the Subcommittee's February 28th request.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.