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Grassley Warns HHS Web Site May Be ‘Propaganda’

Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is raising concerns that a Department of Health and Human Services Web site that urges visitors to send an e-mail to President Barack Obama praising his health care reform plan may violate rules against government-funded propaganda.

The Web page is accessed through a “state your support” button featured prominently on the HHS Web site and carries a disclaimer that the Web site is maintained by HHS.

In a letter sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Tuesday, Grassley warned that “any possible misuse of appropriated funds by the executive branch to engage in publicity or propaganda in support of an Administration priority is a matter that must be investigated and taken seriously,” noting that in 2005 Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that “the use of official funds for similar activities were 'underhanded tactics' and that these tactics 'are not worthy of our great democracy.'”

The form letter on the “state your support” page includes language hailing Obama's efforts. “We strongly support your commitment to comprehensive health reform. This is not a luxury. The continuing, sharp escalation of health care costs for families, businesses, and government is unsustainable. Reform is imperative. We believe that health reform must be enacted this year,” the letter says.

Additionally, the form letter says that signatories will back Obama's efforts. “During these extraordinarily challenging times, we need to put aside past differences and address the health and economic crisis. Our shared interest must come before narrow interests so we can achieve a health system that is affordable and provides high quality for all Americans. We will support your budget with its reserve fund dedicated to achieving health care reform in a fiscally responsible manner. Each of us must be prepared to contribute to achieving this fundamental goal. By signing this statement we affirm our commitment to work with you and our Congressional leaders to enact legislation this year which provides affordable, high quality coverage for all Americans.”

The page requires signatories to provide their name, zip code and e-mail address, and also asks for their mailing address and phone number, although that information is not labeled as required.

In his letter, Grassley notes that HHS has recently issued new guidance to insurers that they must obtain permission from beneficiaries before sending out mailers critical of the reform efforts in Congress. “The use of the official HHS.gov Web site for activities that seem to be nothing more than government propaganda raises many serious questions,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley asked Sebelius for a host of information, including which contractors helped develop the Web site, which third parties and executive branch offices will have access to the personal data and whether signatories will be or have been contacted by HHS or other executive branch offices.

"Healthreform.gov is a valuable resource for the American people and we look forward to discussing this resource with the Senator," HHS spokesman Nick Papas said Tuesday evening.

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