As President Donald Trump’s administration tries to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare, they have reportedly been accessing funds meant for educating the public about the law and shifting it toward a PR campaign to sabotage it.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has taken public funds that previously went toward encouraging enrollment in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, and instead spent them on a social media campaign to repeal and replace the health care law, the Daily Beast reported Thursday.
Under HHS Secretary Tom Price’s watch, a number of testimonial videos featuring individuals who claim their lives were harmed by the ACA have been produced. In total, there have been 23 “viral” videos uploaded to the official HHS YouTube page, which have gathered around a few hundred views each.
A source told the Daily Beast that there were around 130 similar videos made from 30 different interviews. Under former president Obama, outside contractors that shot and edited videos for the HHS charged around $550 an hour.
The Daily Beast claims that the funding for the videos came from the Department’s “consumer information and outreach” budget, which previously provided the funds for ads that encouraged enrollment with the ACA.
“I’m on a daily basis horrified by leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services who seem intent on taking healthcare away from the constituents they are supposed to serve,” Kathleen Sebelius, former HHS Secretary, told the Daily Beast.
“We always believed that delivering health and human services was the mission of the department. That seems to not be the mission of the current leadership.”
Ryan Stanton, a Kentucky physician who was featured in one of the videos, told the Daily Beast that when he was recording the video, he felt pressured to give a more critical message against the health law than he wanted to.
“I don’t think mine was the exact message they were looking for of, ‘Oh, let’s march against Obamacare,’” Stanton said. “It was clearly an effort to push the repeal and replace.”
The HHS website has also gone to great lengths to undermine the ACA, removing links for consumers to apply for coverage and deleting information on benefits and critical dates.
A banner image on the site also leads to a page that explains that the ACA “has done damage to this market and created great burdens for many Americans.”
The Daily Beast listed several other ways that the HHS website was altered to undermine the ACA, bury information, and sow confusion. They also pointed to tweets that were posted by HHS, which included the hashtag #RepealAndReplace.
Andy Slavitt, the former acting administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told the Daily Beast that, put together, the changes were “quite impactful.”
“You’re not hired into the administration to decide whether you agree with the law you’re asked to execute. That’s not your job,” Slavitt said. “Congress appropriates funds for you to carry out laws that they passed, not to spend those funds on activities that counteract those laws.”
Near the end of the 2017 enrollment period, the first ever decline in sign-ups occurred after the Trump administration pulled ads and suspended social media alerts for the final sign up.
Under federal law, the HHS is only allowed to use funds to educate the public and is prohibited from openly encouraging the passage of any legislation.
In 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama had “engaged in covert propaganda” when it encouraged the public to support its clean-water regulations through social media.
“It certainly all sounds highly problematic and inappropriate,” said Cary Coglianese, the Edward B. Shils professor of law and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It does seem very much akin to the kind of propaganda that the GAO faulted EPA for engaging in. 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.”