Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) raised a series of questions in a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar today following press reports that the agency put out a bid for a more than $250 million communications contract for a COVID-19 public relations campaign in the months leading up to the presidential election.
“The Committee is concerned that HHS may use more than a quarter-billion dollars in taxpayer funds on private communications consultants charged with distorting the facts and misleading the public about the Trump Administration’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pallone wrote to Azar. “Given the White House’s unrelenting push to put politics above science, the Committee is deeply troubled by any effort to sideline public health officials in favor of outside communications consultants, particularly just months before the presidential election.”
According to press reports, HHS sent multiple communications firms a performance work statement (PWS), in which the agency identified a series of goals for a new communications contract, including “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the COVID-19 pandemic, “instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy,” build a “coalition of spokespeople,” and provide public health, therapeutic and vaccine information as the country reopens. It would also reportedly include public service advertisements aimed at persuading people to “engage in behavior that actively promotes health behaviors or good citizenship.” Press reports also note that HHS indicated the vast majority of the money will be spent by January 2021—a period of only five months from when HHS reportedly began circulating the PWS.
Senior health officials in the Trump Administration have relied heavily on private communications consultants, including consultants with strong partisan political ties. Earlier this week, the Committee issued a joint staff report on a 17-month investigation into Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma’s use of Republican communications consultants. The report found that top CMS officials misused federal contracts in order to bring handpicked partisan communications consultants into agency operations while sidelining CMS’s in-house communications team.
“Given senior Trump Administration health officials’ past reliance on partisan communications consultants and the White House’s relentless politicization of our nation’s public health system, I am deeply concerned that HHS is pursuing a dishonest COVID-19 messaging campaign designed primarily to benefit President Trump’s reelection prospects,” Pallone concluded. “Now more than ever, HHS must ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to promote public health and safety—not to deceive the public about the Trump Administration’s failed record on the eve of the presidential election.”
As part of his inquiry, Pallone requested documents and answers to a series of questions concerning the quarter billion-dollar communications contract by September 25, 2020.
To read the full letter, click HERE.
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