As the presidential election fast approaches, the Department of Health and Human Services is bidding out a more than $250 million contract to a communications firm as it seeks to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal HHS document obtained by POLITICO.
Several weeks ago, the department sent out to a number of communications firms a “performance work statement,” which lays out what work will be expected of the winning firm. The document says that the vast majority of the money will be spent from now until January.
The document also lists the goals of the contract: “defeat despair and inspire hope, sharing best practices for businesses to operate in the new normal and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy,” build a “coalition of spokespeople” around the country, provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information as the country reopens, and give Americans information on the phases of reopening.
“By harnessing the power of traditional, digital and social media, the sports and entertainment industries, public health associations, and other creative partners to deliver important public health and economic information the administration can defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” the document also says.
The contract comes as the administration’s health agencies face growing questions about their independence in recent weeks. The head of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, admitted that he overstated the benefits of convalescent plasma at a news conference last week with President Donald Trump, and health officials have flip-flopped on key warnings about the virus, including the value of masks to protect Americans.
The FDA also faces a potential key decision in the coming few months: whether to give emergency authorization for a coronavirus vaccine. Polls show that nearly a fifth of adults would refuse a coronavirus vaccine if one were available, in some cases over fears that any approval would be motivated by politics rather than science. Just 14 percent of voters would be more likely to take a vaccine recommended by Trump, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last month.
Last Friday, Hahn removed the FDA’s top communications official, a political appointee, after only two weeks on the job and HHS ended a contract with a communications consultant close to Hahn. As part of the reasoning for severing the contract, chief of staff Brian Harrison pointed to HHS’ history of canceling outside contracts for personal communications consulting.
“In the run-up to a vaccine that’s going to save American lives, there is a lot of amount of public health information that we need to get out there and it includes how to live your lives, run your offices and businesses in the time of Covid, but it’s also about the flu vaccine and the Covid vaccine, and all of this is fundamentally important,” a senior HHS official said. “Defeating the mental health challenges of the coronavirus, the despair, is nearly as important as defeating the physical dangers of the virus.”
The HHS document also says that market research will be used to slice up the American population and “target specific audiences with tailored communications.”
HHS said that among the targets of this information will be businesses and workplaces, colleges and other schools, faith organizations, child care programs and people in law enforcement.
The main part of the contract will be creating public service advertisements to persuade people to “engage in behavior that actively promote health behaviors or good citizenship.”
Around 10 to 12 firms have expressed some amount of interest in the contract, most of which are not major well-known communications firms, according to a person familiar with the matter. Two firms that had looked at the proposal told POLITICO that they didn’t end up pursuing the contract.
The Obama administration paid contractors hundreds of millions of dollars promoting sign-ups under the Affordable Care Act — $684 million in 2013 alone , for instance, though the amount shrank dramatically in later years.
Still, HHS veterans were taken aback by the scope of the proposed project.
“Holy moly,” said a former senior Obama HHS official when told the size of the contract. “In a normal administration, this would have been something coordinated through the White House, but it probably would have been launched back in March, as opposed to the eve of an election.”
Another former senior Obama HHS official said the size of the envisioned program struck him as appropriate — especially the part about “getting ready for vaccines.” But he said the language in the bid about reopening the economy “seems a little strange. … It sounds like quite a stretch beyond what HHS traditionally does.”
The winning contractor will work with HHS’ assistant secretary for public affairs, an office now headed by Trump campaign alum Michael Caputo.
Responding to the criticism, Caputo said, “If I want to take advice on how to do this, I won’t take it from people behind Healthcare.gov.”
Dan Diamond contributed to this report.