Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (Charles Dharapak/AP)

An HHS spokesperson told PRWeek that the contracted work will inform the American people “about the many preventive benefits now available to those with Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance” that stem from the Act.   

The 2010 law, often referred to by President Obama’s critics and political rivals as “Obamacare,” was passed narrowly after hard-fought legislative battles during which the recently elected president spent an enormous portion of his political capital. The policy is still a matter of great political disagreement as the Supreme Court considers arguments by 26 states to overturn the law.

Although the HHS contract funding for the public relations campaign was mandated by Congress and the award was competitively bid, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is getting, er, flack from both ends of the ideological spectrum for this particular government spending.  (The contract comes under an open-ended, seven-year “Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity” agreement that the agency awarded last year to Porter Novelli and four other top-tier agencies.) 

While it is not the first project the ad agency has done for HHS since the health-care act passed (a $400,000 video starring Andy Griffith was widely criticized in 2010 by opponents of health-care reform), the news of the most recent award  riled progressive watchdog interests.

Left-leaning media outlets have complained about the multimillion-dollar award, noting Porter Novelli’s 2009 and 2010 aggressive campaign against the legislation. Porter Novelli’s previous practice in this arena was headed by Peter Pitts, who until a few months ago was director of global health care at the 40-year-old agency. At the same time, he founded an outside nonprofit enterprise that frequently attacked the president's plan, Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

Republicans accuse the agency of spending taxpayer money to promote the administration.

HHS’s outreach and education expenditure is “another striking example of the Obama Administration's willingness to waste taxpayer money promoting the President's failed policies.” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Portman, ranking member of the government affairs contracting oversight subcommittee (and possible Romney VP choice), has asked Sebelius for copies of the “request for proposal (RFP), a detailed statement of the expected work product, the planned content of taxpayer-funded advertisements, the target audiences, and the timetable for advertisements.” He also requested HHS’s legal opinion on whether the contract complies with appropriation restrictions barring certain spending on public relations. 

In a statement headlined “Pickpocket,” Sen. Jim De Mint (R-S.C.) complained that the “$20 million  … used to advertise ObamaCare is only a sliver of the millions of dollars the government spends to promote its own work.”

Former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told her Fox News colleague Greta van Susteren: “This is propaganda. It's just promoting ObamaCare. And $20 million -- take it one step further and find out how did this PR firm even be awarded the $20 million contract? It's crony capitalism on steroids.”

Like every latter-day equivalent of the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce from TV’s “Madmen,” public relations companies are in business to help clients build positive awareness for their products and brands. If anyone needs help with its public image these days, it’s the federal government. I agree that $17 million is a lot of cash – and is a small percentage of the total amount of taxpayer funds that the “National Multi-Media and Education Campaign” will ultimately cost. But HHS awarded the work in the “normal” — fully disclosed yet hopelessly opaque — manner that has typified government contract negotiations for many decades.

Porter Novelli, a multinational ad agency founded in 1972, is part of an even larger corporate conglomerate, Omnicom Group.  Their client portfolio includes Pepsi, Pampers and Hewlett Packard. The American Meat Institute has applauded the firm’s crisis management in “product recalls, tampering, environmental and natural disasters, regulatory and legislative issues, labor and factory incidents as well attacks from advocacy groups.” 

The best news for Sebelius: For this PR crisis, she knows whom to call.

Bonnie Goldstein could use better PR advice.  You can follow her on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel