Medicare chicanery
makes independent
probe necessary


A number of questions surround the health measure that was to be the key domestic achievement of President Bush's first term.

LEGISLATION that was to be the jewel of President Bush's re-election bid has lost some of its luster. A number of disputes are tarnishing the Medicare measure that was to be the premier domestic policy achievement to propel Bush into the campaign year. Congress, which was the target of a less-than-forthcoming administration in the most egregious case, ought to take a closer look at all of them.

Chief among the issues is whether the administration deliberately withheld from Congress data on the cost of the prescription drug benefit. Richard Foster, the Medicare program's veteran actuary, has said officials repeatedly threatened to fire him if he revealed the estimates, which were significantly higher than the numbers the White House used to push the legislation. This is important because the measure, approved on a narrow vote in the House, probably would have failed if Foster had not been muzzled.

Other events also have raised questions about the Medicare legislation:

» Rep. Nick Smith, a Republican from Michigan, has accused fellow lawmakers and others of attempting to bribe him to vote for the bill. Smith, who is retiring, says House leaders promised financial and political support for his son, who is running to succeed him, if he voted yes. They also threatened to obstruct his son's campaign if he didn't. He refused to yield despite a barrage of arm-twisting by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, among others.

The House ethics committee, signaling the seriousness of Smith's allegations, has begun a formal investigation, the first such probe initiated in a decade.

» Federal investigators also are examining whether videos procured by the Department of Health and Human Services that extol the law's benefits and prominently portray the president were meant to deceive. The videos, in which actors were paid to pose as journalists and that were made to appear as news segments, have been distributed to TV stations for broadcast without identifying their source. They were discovered during an earlier probe of fliers and ads, also produced by the department, that investigators ruled had skimmed legal boundaries.

Federal law prohibits use of taxpayer money for propaganda purposes and while the videos and leaflets seem like minor infractions, the administration has earmarked $123.6 million for the Medicare publicity campaign. In addition, a media firm working on Bush's re-election was hired to promote the law.

» Questions of impropriety also are being raised about Thomas Scully, head of the HHS agency overseeing Medicare, who left his government job a month after the bill's passage to take a lucrative position as an adviser for pharmaceutical and health-care companies.

Scully is at the vortex of the Foster controversy. The analyst says that last June, Scully and others told him he would be fired if he responded directly to congressional requests for the bill's costs, which he estimated at more than $100 billion higher than the administration's figure of $400 billion. That price tag already had some Republicans, Smith among them, balking -- so much so that House leaders extended the normal 15-minute voting period to nearly three hours to give themselves and the administration time to herd members back into the fold.

In January, when Foster's calculation of $534 billion was made public, the White House expressed surprise, even though internal documents and its own officials make it clear the administration had been well aware of the true numbers for months before the vote. Foster this week also alleged that the White House participated in the decision to withhold his data.

Thompson, who has laid blame on the now-departed Scully, has asked his department to investigate the matter. However, since he and his agency may be culpable, the investigation should be conducted independently.

While the administration contends the controversy has political motives, even Republicans are troubled, saying they relied on the White House's estimate in urging colleagues to support the bill. A congressional inquiry would be better at getting real answers.



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