A $17.6M assignment handed to Porter Novelli in late April by the Dept. of Health and Human Services to promote the benefits available to Americans under the Affordable Care Act is the latest in a long line of political PR footballs in recent years.

PN, which has promoted aspects of the new law for the HHS since its passage in 2010, was one of five firms – and one of four incumbents -- selected by the HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in September to compete for and handle communications assignments as they arise.

CMS, as the Medicare agency is known, issued a task order to PN on April 30 for the maligned assignment, which the federal agency describes as “promoting the overall awareness of preventative benefits” with a goal to “target specific segments of the population to educate and raise awareness of benefits that can improve their health.”

Press reports this week lauding a $20M PR campaign to defend “Obamacare” molded the advertising-heavy initiative into a political football.

Left-leaning ThinkProgress recalled a PN campaign to torpedo healthcare reform in 2009 under former healthcare staffer Peter Pitts, a Bush administration spokesman at the Food and Drug Administration.

On the right, where most of the criticism is originating, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was among other members of Congress to criticize the PR pact. “There is no justification for wasting $20 million in taxpayer dollars on an advertising blitz for the President’s health care spending law,” Portman said in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius which he released to the press. “With Washington nearly $16 trillion dollars in debt, the American taxpayers should not be asked to fund ad campaigns defending a law that only deepens the spending hole we’re in.”

Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in February asked 11 federal agencies to look at PR contracts in what the senators said is an attempt to find out “how much money the administration is spending to promote its own policies.”

CMS in early March put out the campaign for bids among its five pre-qualified agencies. Within the expansive Affordable Care Act are provisions to educate the public about changes and expanded benefits available under its reforms.

Another HHS RFP, for the ongoing promotion of electronic health records, was released earlier this month. Ketchum, which has a handful of contracts with HHS and like PN is owned by Omnicom, has worked the e-health record PR beat for the past few years.

Government PR contracts have been a popular target of Congressman and White House critics over the past decade. Ketchum was dragged through the Armstrong Williams controversy over a PR pact with the Dept. of Education in 2004 and a Pentagon program to dispatch retired military officials for media appearance to promote Bush administration policies was the subject of a General Accountability Office probe.

The latest flap wasn’t even the first controversy involving Porter Novelli and HHS. After Republican Rep. Darrell Isaa’s Committee on Oversight and Government demanded an investigation, the GAO in October 2010 ruled that three 30-second spots produced by the firm to promote the Affordable Care Act were not propaganda.