HHS use of funds for health reform campaign falls into question

Form letter could be considered propaganda designed to influence legislation, analysts find.

A Health and Human Services Department Web campaign could be interpreted as violating three restrictions on the use of congressionally appropriated funding, according to an analysis released last week in response to concerns from a Republican senator.

In a Nov. 2 memorandum, the Congressional Research Service said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley made a "legitimate inquiry" about the legality of the State Your Support feature of an HHS Web site designed to encourage transparency and disseminate information about the health care debate. The department might have committed three distinct breaches of appropriations law through the campaign on HealthReform.gov, CRS concluded. These include violating general restrictions on the use of funds for publicity or propaganda purposes.

Because the State Your Support link provides a form letter that commits signatories to "work with our congressional leaders," HHS also might have violated laws prohibiting publicity directed at Congress for or against pending legislation, CRS found. Finally, by urging the public to write letters in support of health care reform, the department might have broken rules on the use of funds for lobbying materials, researchers concluded.

CRS noted, however, that there is room for interpretation of the appropriations laws. And HHS officials argue the campaign is appropriate.

According to an HHS spokesman, the department's own review of the regulations found the site to be "entirely legal and proper." In a Nov. 4 letter to Grassley, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted State Your Support uses only a small portion of the funds appropriated for the HealthReform.gov contract.

Individuals who sign the letter are notified of updates to HealthReform.gov and receive invitations to health reform-related events in their region. Users have the option to submit an address and phone number, but name, e-mail address and ZIP code are required fields. According to Sebelius, only a select few people have direct access to this information and they have not used it for alternate purposes.

"The department has been careful to comply with all legal requirements with respect to this link and its other communications with the public," Sebelius said.

But in a statement on Friday, Grassley reiterated that he believes the "campaign now on www.hhs.gov is not purely informational because it expressly has visitors 'affirm' their commitment to work with congressional leaders to enact legislation this year." The senator has asked HHS to provide documentation of State Your Support activities, including funding records and details on how the government used individuals' contact information. HHS still is working to address those requests.

"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," Grassley said in his initial Oct. 20 letter to HHS.