House GOP Maps New Strategy on Medicare

Posted February 9, 2004 at 6:21pm

No longer content to let Democrats roundly criticize the new Medicare prescription drug law and Bush administration efforts to publicize it, the House Republican Conference hopes to enlist its Members in launching a media counteroffensive touting the new law via public service announcements.

GOP Conference staffers have begun to develop a script they hope their Members will use to tape television and radio public service announcements that would air in their districts, according to Conference spokesman Greg Crist.

Television and radio stations generally air PSAs, such as those discouraging drug use, at no cost because they are largely apolitical.

Crist said the Conference-designed PSAs would ideally have a Member of Congress speaking directly to his or her district’s seniors on local TV and radio.

The script would have the Member introduce him or herself, tell seniors that there are new benefits under Medicare and instruct them to call 1-800-MEDICARE or the Member’s office for more information.

“It’s another tool to let seniors know there are options available to them,” said Crist, who said seniors may also be directed to a Web site, www.medicare.gov, run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The decision by the House Republican Conference to get involved comes as many Democrats and interest groups have cried foul over a $22 million plan by HHS to run similar ads and send flyers to Medicare-eligible seniors.

Saying the HHS Medicare prescription drug ads are vague and misleading, Democrats convinced the General Accounting Office on Friday to investigate whether the ad campaign violates a federal law barring the use of public funds for “political or propaganda purposes.”

In response to the investigation and Democratic charges of taxpayer-funded political ads, House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) defended HHS on Monday.

“Democrats who failed to support the plan are scaring seniors with false information [about the law],” Pryce said in a statement. “The Department of Health and Human Services has introduced an educational campaign to bring this plan out of the political fog and inform seniors of the helpful benefits provided in this plan.”

Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said of the PSA plan: “The strategy shows that Republicans are in trouble. Recent polling shows what Democrats have known all along — that the more seniors learn about this bill the less they like.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kori Bernards added, “No amount of PSAs or flashy advertising will trick seniors into thinking this bill will bring down the cost of their prescription medicines.”

Democrats said they would withhold their fire on whether the PSAs would be a misuse of the medium until they see the actual script. Members are allowed to use the House Recording Studio to record PSAs.

Crist was careful to note that Members who tape the PSAs would not include any explanations for why they might have supported the bill.

Rather, the PSA script will include information on the prescription drug card coming out this summer and information on the Medicare drug benefit that starts in 2006, he said.

“We don’t see how it’s any different than what HHS is doing,” said Crist.

Crist acknowledged that some television and radio stations might refuse to air PSAs featuring Members of Congress during an election year, but hoped that some stations would see what he said was their educational intent.

“If it’s something where a Member can’t do it, it’s totally fine. We don’t have a problem with that,” said Crist, who said an announcer could read the script instead.

“Ultimately, the control here rests with the local stations. If there’s something even remotely questionable, then they’ll decide,” he said.

Additionally, the House GOP Conference in conjunction with the Speaker’s office is having a staff meeting on Wednesday designed to give Members options for how to explain the new prescription drug law to constituents. Crist said the meeting would likely feature tutorials on how to host district forums where health care experts or HHS officials could talk directly to seniors.

“The key is to give Members a toolkit so they can tailor the information to their districts,” Crist said.