The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services awarded a $20 million contract to Porter Novelli last week to promote the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Reported first by PRWeek's Virgil Dickson, the contract has become a political lightning rod for conservatives portraying it as a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign by the Obama White House.
Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said on Fox News, where she is a contributor, that the contract is “a propaganda piece, which I think violates many of the procurement laws and other laws applicable to government contracts.” Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Ron Johnson (R-WI), criticized the contract on Twitter. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) sent a letter to Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today demanding more information about the planned campaign.
Porter DC chief Kiki McLean has also drawn the ire of conservative media for her connections to the 2008 campaigns of now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. Porter beat out Weber Shandwick and Fleishman-Hillard in the RFP process, and the firm has worked with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid in the past.
Much of the contract is uncontroversial – encouraging consumers to request wellness visits, cancer screenings, and well baby visits aren't the sort of things that inspire placards and protests – except that they're a part of the Affordable Care Act, better known to many on the right as Obamacare. ThinkProgress.org and MediaMatters.org have both pointed out that President George W. Bush's administration spent millions on marketing campaigns. However, the Medicare prescription drug benefit program passed during Bush's presidency never inspired the vitriol that the Affordable Care Act did.
Healthcare reform is a source of political divisiveness if there ever was one. It's landmark legislation to most Democrats but a soon-to-be-deemed-unconstitutional abomination to many conservatives. And the fact that McLean was a strategist for multiple Democratic presidential campaigns makes the contract – and its eye-catching budget - an easy talking point for conservative commentators. The big question for HHS and Porter is how aggressively GOP lawmakers use the contract to score political points in coming days.