A group of more than 70 lawmakers sent a letter to Thompson asking the $10 million ad campaign -- "Same Medicare, More Benefits" -- be put on hold until the General Accounting Office has issued a decision on whether it is appropriate. HHS also plans to spend an additional $3 million for ads in newspapers, radio and on the Internet, in both English and Spanish.
Democrats object that one of the firms involved in the campaign, National Media Inc., of Alexandria, Va., also is involved in the Bush re-election effort. They also are unhappy with language in the ads that tells seniors the Medicare program options available now will remain the same in future years.
"I voted for that (Medicare) plan but it is inappropriate for public money to be spent in a propaganda campaign," Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, said during that committee's hearing. "It's not an education campaign -- it's a political campaign."
Thompson, who testified before the committee on the proposed fiscal 2005 HHS budget, argued the new Medicare law, signed by Bush in December, requires HHS to conduct a thorough educational campaign informing Medicare beneficiaries of new benefits -- including prescription drug coverage -- and options in the senior health insurance program.
"This is being reviewed and if it is deemed political it will be removed," Thompson said. "I'm sorry to tell you I don't believe this is political at all."
Thompson said National Media has done work for HHS since 2001, well before the Bush re-election campaign was established, and is only one of a number of firms involved in the Medicare educational effort.
Keeping to the political theme, Thompson argued that Ketchum Public Relations, which obtained the contract in late 2003 to run the Medicare ad campaign -- and subsequently subcontracted part of it to National Media -- is run by Paul Rand, a big supporter of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is seeking to be the Democratic presidential candidate.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she disagreed the new Medicare law provided more benefits for seniors and would maintain the traditional fee-for-service option in the future as competitive pricing demonstration projects begin in 2006. The demo projects pit traditional fee-for-service Medicare against managed care insurers so that if the managed care option is less expensive than the cost of the FFS program, seniors would end up paying more to retain the FFS coverage.
She repeatedly asked Thompson if he knew for certain Medicare would be the same in 2010 as it is today.
"I don't know, I don't know -- I don't think you know either," a flustered Thompson responded.
Stabenow also pointed out the Medicare information was included as a full-page ad in Roll Call -- a tabloid newspaper that circulates almost exclusively on Capitol Hill as a source for lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists and others involved in the political arena.
"It's in Roll Call -- and that certainly is not where my constituents are reading," she said.
Conrad said he is considering introducing legislation to make sure public money is not spent on any government ad campaign that is geared toward a re-election bid -- Democrat or Republican.
The HHS budget plan calls for $580 billion in spending, an increase of 6 percent over 2004. Included in that is $67 billion in discretionary spending. The Medicare drug law, pegged to cost $395 billion by the Congressional Budget Office, is estimated by HHS to come in at $534 billion over its 10-year period.
Thompson told the committee CBO is sticking to its estimate and admitted that HHS actuaries did not have the extensive information available to the CBO, so the actual cost of the law still cannot be nailed down.
He said the two estimates varied because each group predicted differently how many seniors would sign up for new managed care options and how many low-income seniors would take advantage of the new Part D drug benefit.