The federal Obamacare website has earned plenty of attention in recent weeks, but probably not the kind administration officials envisioned when they hired public relations firms to help promote HealthCare.gov.
The overall Obamacare public relations push began years ago, ranging from contracts for tens of millions of dollars to major firms to a subcontract for about $1 million to a media-buying firm with little or no track record of federal contracting whose founder has deep Democratic ties.
Federal records show D.C.-based Buying Time LLC won a $1.1 million award through the Recovery Act to conduct a "paid online campaign designed to drive consumers who need help with insurance issues to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) Map page on HealthCare.gov."
Neither the company's founder nor administration officials would discuss why the firm was hired.
The company's founder, Cathie Herrick, a veteran media buyer who, along with her firm, has worked with the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential campaigns, confirmed her company received a subcontract but referred questions about its work to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The prime contractor on the award, Ketchem Inc., likewise referred questions to CMS.
A CMS spokeswoman initially said agency officials were looking into questions from The Washington Times about how and why the company was hired. But officials failed to respond despite repeated follow-up inquiries spanning several days.
Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union said that it's hardly unusual anymore for the government to spend "big bucks" on outside public relations and advertising firms to promote presidential initiatives, noting that President George W. Bush's administration likewise used tax dollars to tout the arrival of the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"How ironic that while the Affordable Care Act is being blamed for slowing job creation outside the Beltway, the law is offering plenty of job opportunities to firms inside the Beltway willing to promote it," Mr. Sepp said.
The subcontract to Buying Time represents just a small slice of the tens of millions of dollars being spent by the administration to tout Obamacare. It's unclear how much if any of the subcontract to Buying Time was invoiced, but project reports say the contract work involved "paid and earned media campaign to increase awareness of and enrollment in the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan."
Overall, administration officials say, outreach efforts are important to ensure Americans know about their options under Obamacare. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a Senate hearing that she was "incredibly disappointed" that her budget requests for more outreach resources were denied.
Last year, Republicans criticized the administration for hiring public relations firm Porter Novelli under a $20 million contract.
"With out-of-control deficits, it is unacceptable to squander taxpayer money on what is essentially political propaganda," Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, said in a statement at the time.
Republicans stepped up their criticism of the glitch-prone website Tuesday.
"The failure of the Obamacare website is emblematic of the larger failure of Obamacare and of the kind of problems we can expect if Washington Democrats continue their stubborn defense of this partisan law," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a statement Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced Tuesday that he issued a subpoena for records from a contractor that worked on the site, citing concerns about data security.
The Buying Time subcontract isn't the first stimulus money the administration has spent for public relations and ad purposes.
The Times reported last year that nearly a half-million dollars in federal stimulus funds were spent on a public relations firm to run more than 100 spots on MSNBC shows hosted by Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann to tout the administration's green job training efforts.
The Times in 2011 traced how nearly $1 million in broadband funding went to help produce an online soap opera co-starring Billy Dee Williams, which officials said would help provide an incentive for people to connect to the Internet.
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