The Trump administration used taxpayer dollars meant to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act on a public relations campaign designed to ruin public opinion of former President Obama’s health care law, an exclusive by The Daily Beast uncovered.
The smear campaign, which involves a multi-pronged social media push and several video testimonials, has raised concerns among legal experts and congressional leaders, according to the online publication. Democrats in Congress have specifically asked that federal agencies investigate whether the administration misused funds to roll out covert propaganda.
“I’m on a daily basis horrified by leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services who seem intent on taking health care away from constituents they’re supposed to serve,” former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told The Daily Beast. “We’ve always believed that delivering health and human services was the mission of the department, [but] that seems to not be the mission of the current leadership.”
HHS declined to comment on its current PR campaign, but The Daily Beast spoke with over half a dozen sources with knowledge of the administration’s anti-Obamacare campaign. For instance, HHS has reportedly filmed and produced a number of video testimonials featuring people claiming to have been “burdened” by the Affordable Care Act.
The department has released 23 videos so far, but a source familiar with the matter said nearly 30 interviews have been conducted in total.
“The biggest issue is that as we expand Obamacare and Medicaid through able-bodied people, what’s happening is we are hurting the truly most vulnerable,” Illinois resident Christine Chalkey, whose son is developmentally disabled, said in her video testimony. “They’ve expanded, there’s just not enough money to go around. And so the first cuts, unfortunately, are truly the most vulnerable.”
Sources who worked for or are currently employed by HHS told The Daily Beast that all the videos were shot at the department’s internal studio — an about-face from administrations past when an outside contractor was hired to record and edit footage.
Where did HHS get the coins to produce the videos, though?
The news site reported that funding for the testimonials came from the department’s “consumer information and outreach” budget, which was originally used to promote the ACA and encourage the people to enroll. The Trump administration has requested more than $550 million for this particular budget item and two sources with knowledge of the videos told The Daily Beast that HHS continues to snatch money from the outreach fund, despite the fact that its objective has switched.
Efforts to smear Obamacare aren’t just on the department’s YouTube page, however. The HHS Twitter account also features posts that contain anti-Obamacare messaging, including re-tweeted posts from Secretary Tom Price’s account that explicitly advocate for legislative efforts to repeal and replace the landmark health care law.
We will continue to work to create a #healthcare system that is truly responsive to the needs of #patients & #smallbiz. #RepealAndReplace pic.twitter.com/iCiukGs6tE
— Tom Price, M.D. (@SecPriceMD) June 5, 2017
#Obamacare has been detrimental for Kelly’s #smallbiz and her employees. Learn what we're doing to provide relief → https://t.co/jWi4wkIjw6 pic.twitter.com/dyMgRSorEj
— Tom Price, M.D. (@SecPriceMD) June 7, 2017
“It certainly all sounds highly problematic and inappropriate,” Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the online. “The tweets by the Secretary are clearly seeking to shape public attitudes about Obamacare and whether it should be repealed and replaced. He is explicit about that. And it is highly unusual and, I think, problematic when government officials engage in that kind of public outreach.”
The same holds true for the department’s website. The Daily Beast pointed out that the banner image on the site’s home page now leads to a page highlighting how the ACA “has done damage to this market and created great burdens for many Americans.” The site also features a post criticizing healthcare.gov and encourages visitors to use private-sector brokers.
There’s no sign of what sort of impact, if any, the Trump administration’s smear campaign has had on Americans’ view of Obamacare. However, as the GOP struggles to pass its new healthcare plan, its safe to say that the ACA could be around longer than expected.