A leading US Senator is seeking more information on the $20 million contract recently awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to a public relations firm to advertise President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Republican Rob Portman has written to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking how the multimedia campaign, awarded to PR firm Porter Novelli, will operate, and also seeking a legal opinion concerning the contract's compliance with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012.

This law states that: "no part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used…for publicity or propaganda purposes."

"Please provide an explanation of the extent to which this new multimedia campaign does or does not constitute 'publicity or propaganda'," Rep Portman asks Sec Sebelius.

His request follows a related, broader inquiry by Rep Portman and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who in late February asked the HHS to supply it by March 16 with basic information about the Department's contracts for the acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising or similar services from fiscal year 2008 to the present. The Senators have still had no response from HHS, Sen Portman tells Sec Sebelius, adding: "the same request was addressed to 10 other federal agencies, all but two of which have responded."

Commenting to Fox News on the Porter Novelli contract, Sen Portman said that “if you're trying to educate the public as to how to comply with a specific law, there might be a purpose to it. If, on the other hand, you're doing a PR blitz to try to sell a programme during an election year, that seems to me to be more in the realm of something a politician organisation should be paying for rather than us as taxpayers."

Meantime, HHS has reported that, in the first four months of 2012 alone, the ACA has saved Medicare enrollees $3.5 billion on their prescription drug costs.

More than 416,000 people have saved an average of $724 each on the medicines they purchased after they hit the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap - the "doughnut hole" - says the Department, adding that these savings build on the law's success in 2010 and 2011, when more than 5.1 million people with Medicare saved over $3.2 billion on prescription drugs.

People with Medicare coverage who hit the doughnut hole in 2010 also received a one-time $250 rebate, while last year enrollees began receiving a 50% discount on covered brand-name drugs and 7% coverage of generic drugs in the coverage gap.;

This year, Medicare coverage for generic drugs in the doughnut hole has risen to 14%, and cover for both brand-name drugs and generics in the gap will continue to increase over time until 2020, when the gap will no longer exist, say officials.