WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's publicly funded Medicare ad campaign on television is legal, though somewhat political, congressional investigators said yesterday.
The General Accounting Office review of the ad and other promotional materials about the new prescription drug law pointed out omissions and other weaknesses in the publicity campaign.
But investigators concluded, "In our view, the materials are not so partisan as to be unlawful." Federal law bars public money from being spent for political propaganda.
The review was requested by Democratic opponents of the Medicare law. They contended the administration was using $22 million in taxpayer money, including $9.5 million for a widely aired 30-second ad, to boost the president's reelection campaign, rather than educate older people.
The lawmakers asked networks to pull the ad, saying it was too partisan. CBS stopped airing it last month, then reconsidered. Among the problems pointed out by investigators was that television and newspaper ads, as well as a flier, promote the savings from Medicare drug discount cards that are expected to take effect in June, but do not mention that the cards can cost as much as $30.
Also yesterday, the administration, responding to complaints from lawmakers, decided not to go ahead with the appointment of the government's food and drug regulator to lead a government study of importing drugs from Canada. Tommy Thompson, health and human services secretary, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday that he was aware of the criticism of his decision last month to name Mark McClellan as chairman of a commission that is to report to Congress by December.
McClellan, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has been a leading opponent of allowing drugs from abroad, citing concerns about product safety. Lawmakers who want to ease Americans' access to cheaper drugs from abroad had criticized Thompson for tilting the study against imported drugs by naming McClellan to the top job.
McClellan, meanwhile, also reversed course and said he planned to appear today before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to answer questions about the importation issue.Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said he would block Senate confirmation until McClellan answered questions about importation of drugs from Canada.