- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

A top Senate Democrat took shots at President Bush's proposed budget for Medicare yesterday, saying the administration "cooked the books and cooked them big time" to come up with cost estimates.

"I just don't see this budget as adding up," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, told Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson in a Budget Committee hearing yesterday.

Mr. Conrad said the president's budget assumes Medicare, the federal health care insurance program for people 65 and older, and for the disabled, will grow more slowly in the next decade than it has since its inception.

The administration's Office of Management and Budget estimates a 3.5 percent growth rate for Medicare over the next 10 years. But Mr. Conrad said the Congressional Budget Office estimates a growth rate of 5 percent over the same time period, and private health insurance spending per capita is estimated to grow by 6.1 percent.

"These small differences add up to huge amounts of money," Mr. Conrad said. "That's how we get into trouble underestimating what costs will be." He also said the proposed budget does not provide enough money for a quality prescription-drug program.

Mr. Thompson defended the president's plan, which dedicated $190 billion over 10 years to improve and modernize Medicare, including a subsidized prescription-drug program. He stood by the OMB's estimated 3.5 percent growth rate for Medicare.

Mr. Conrad said it would take $750 billion to create a prescription-drug benefit equivalent to what federal retirees receive. He questioned how the government would be able to provide a prescription-drug benefit "with about a quarter" of that.

"We have to start someplace," said Mr. Thompson, who pointed out that the budget included $89 billion in new health credits to help an estimated 6 million Americans obtain health insurance.

He said it also dedicates $1.5 billion to support 170 new and expanded community health centers, which provide preventive and primary health care to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said instead of bickering over the cost of a prescription-drug benefit, senators should aim to "get the policy decided so that when we get the money to do it we can jump right into it and not waste another year."

Mr. Grassley said he will propose a draft bill in about two weeks that will strengthen Medicare and put a prescription-drug benefit in place. He is working on it with Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, and John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat.

In a speech earlier this week, Mr. Bush called for an overhaul of America's health care system and vowed to "bring Medicare into the 21st century."

"Medicare is antiquated; it has not kept pace with advances in medicine," he said. "Medicare does not fully cover preventive medicine."

Mr. Bush called on Congress "to expand its coverage, to improve its services, to strengthen its financing and to give seniors more control over the health care they receive."

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