The Department Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare, announced the $12.6 million ad campaign this week and unveiled a 30-second television commercial that anchors the effort. The ad proclaims: "Same Medicare. More benefits."
An HHS spokesman says the ad campaign is part of a three-year effort to increase awareness about Medicare. The campaign will run through March and include network and cable television, radio, print and Spanish-language ads.
But in a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, several Democrats say they "are particularly concerned about the objectivity of this campaign … " and question its timing. In addition, one of the firms working on the ad campaign is linked to the president's re-election campaign.
The GAO has received the Democrats' request to review the ad campaign and referred it to their general counsel's office, but no decision has been reached on whether to pursue the matter.
In December, President Bush signed a sweeping Medicare reform bill that, starting in 2006, adds a prescription drug benefit to the government insurance program. Beginning this summer, seniors can obtain a discount card for purchasing prescription drugs. The White House estimates the new law will cost $534 billion over ten years.
In the television ad, a senior asks, "So how is Medicare changing?"
"It's the same Medicare you've always counted on, plus more benefits like prescription drug coverage," an announcer replies. The ad goes on to tell seniors "You can always keep your same Medicare coverage" and "You can save with Medicare drug discount cards this June. And save more with prescription drug coverage in 2006."
The ad tells viewers that more information is available at 1-800-Medicare. A print ad delivers much the same message.
Neither ad mentions the role of President Bush or Congress is developing the new drug benefit. But the Democrats who wrote Thomspon — including Ways and Means Committee ranking minority member Rep. Charles Rangel of New York — complain that the ad misleads when it says "It's the same Medicare."
Democrats contend Medicare is not the same. The new law includes restrictions on Medigap prescription insurance, introduces means-testing of premiums for supplemental or Part B Medicare and indexes deductibles for Part B to inflation. Neither the TV nor print ad mentions any of those changes.
"Objectivity is essential so that beneficiaries are fairly informed of their options and have the necessary, unbiased information to make sound choices," the Democrats' letter reads. "Taxpayer funds should not be used to wage an ideological or political campaign."
The letter also says the ads may lead to "confusion" because they are running more than a year before the prescription drug benefit begins.
According to Bill Pierce, the HHS spokesman, the purpose of the ad campaign is to get seniors to seek more information from the toll-free hotline — not to delve into all the details in a 30-second ad.
"It's designed to drive people to the 1-800-number," Pierce said. "We know from our surveys that seniors don't even understand the basic Medicare program well. So we started the campaign to drive people to the 1-800 number."
Pierce said the toll-free number has been the motivation behind HHS ads for years, and that the number of calls to the hotline had risen as a result.
Democrats and other critics of the president have also raised questions about who is working on the ads and where they are being run. According to Pierce, Ketchum Advertising is running the campaign and Campbell Ewald is handling the creative aspects. National Media is doing the buying.
National Media is a firm run by Alex Castellanos, an ad executive linked to the president's campaign. In June, he gave $2,000 to Bush/Cheney '04, according to the Federal Election Commission's online database.
Pierce says Ketchum, Ewald and National Media have been working on HHS ads for three years now.
Critics of the campaign question why it placed ads in Roll Call and The Hill, two publications they say are read more by Washington insiders than senior citizens. Roll Call says the average age of its readers is 40. The full-page Medicare ad, which Roll Call ran on Wednesday, cost $9,230.
"I don't know the exact nature of the buy," said Pierce. He added that ads had also been placed in the Washington Post and other major publications. And the TV ad is also aimed at a general audience, he said. "It's a national network and cable buy."
MoveOn.org, the nonprofit group that was rebuffed by CBS when it tried to run an ad criticizing Mr. Bush during the Super Bowl, says the network was using a double standard.
MoveOn's Super Bowl ad was rejected by CBS because it was an advocacy ad. But CBS has run the Medicare ad.
A CBS spokesman declined to comment, except to point out that during the Clinton administration, Republicans alleged that an ad promoting new health care coverage for children was political in nature.
By Jarrett Murphy