Mailing of brochure touting health-care law irks GOP lawmakers, who ask GAO to investigate

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 11:04 AM

The federal government this week spent millions of dollars mailing a brochure to 40.2 million Medicare beneficiaries describing how the recent health-care overhaul "will provide you and your family greater savings and increased quality health care."

The Obama administration said the mailing is an effort to inform the public about the effects of the legislation.

Republican lawmakers call it misleading propaganda and an illegal use of taxpayer funds. On Wednesday, senior Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal watchdog, to assess the issue.

The dispute is part of a continuing battle to shape public opinion in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections. Democrats are arguing that the legislation was a historic step forward, while Republicans say that it will compromise medical care -- including coverage under Medicare, a federal insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius publicized the brochure at a news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday with the House's top Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).

"At the Department of Health and Human Services, it's our responsibility to get the word to seniors about what the facts are involving this critical benefit program," Sebelius said.

"One of our top jobs is to clear up confusion and correct misinformation about health reform. This brochure . . . is a good place to start," Pelosi said.

The brochure was prepared by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency within HHS, said Marilyn Tavenner, the acting administrator of CMS. Sebelius was involved, and the White House was consulted, Tavenner said. It was paid for out of the budget for Medicare beneficiary information and outreach, she said.

The four-page glossy color brochure says the new law delivers "needed improvements that will keep Medicare strong and solvent." It also describes "Improvements Beyond Medicare That You and Your Family Can Count On," such as permitting young adults to remain on their parents' health insurance policies until their 26th birthday. It uses variations of the words "improves" or "improvements" eight times.

Republicans disputed the assertion that the law improves the Medicare Advantage program, through which beneficiaries can voluntarily enroll in private health insurance plans that typically offer extra benefits along with tighter restrictions on care.

The new health-care law reduces funding for Medicare Advantage by $206 billion over 10 years, and the chief actuary at CMS has predicted that the cuts will result in "less generous benefit packages," senior Ways and Means Republicans Dave Camp of Michigan and Wally Herger of California wrote in a letter to the GAO.

The brochure says the Medicare Advantage cuts eliminate overpayments to insurance companies.

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