- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The White House yesterday supported plans to investigate whether a top Medicare official was threatened with retaliation if he told members of Congress about higher cost estimates of the Medicare prescription-drug bill.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Tuesday the department’s inspector general will investigate how the administration handled cost estimates for the Medicare prescription-drug legislation, which became law in December.

“That is an appropriate step for the secretary to take,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday. “It’s a serious allegation.”

A firestorm erupted after a report last week that the administration’s top Medicare cost analyst, Richard Foster, was warned he could lose his job if he told lawmakers of expensive estimates for the prescription-drug bill.

Mr. Thompson has said Mr. Foster and Tom Scully, who was the Medicare administrator at the time, had a disagreement, but that Mr. Scully didn’t mean to threaten Mr. Foster’s job. Mr. Thompson said he wanted to be “absolutely certain” of what happened, however.

Congress passed the Medicare bill in November, using the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate of $395 billion over 10 years.

Many conservatives criticized spending even that much, but in President Bush’s budget proposal released last month, administration analysts at the Office of Management and Budget estimated the new Medicare law would cost $534 billion over 10 years.

In June, Mr. Foster had estimated that a version similar to what became law would cost $551 billion, according to a document that House Democrats obtained and released two months ago. The top Democratic aide on the Ways and Means Committee said this estimate was requested from Mr. Foster back in June and the budget analyst said he was not allowed to provide it.

Democrats wasted no time in attacking Republicans, saying the Medicare bill would not have passed if higher cost estimates were known.

“If Mr. Foster has been allowed by this administration to tell the truth, this Medicare prescription drug bill would not have passed; period,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday.

“A prompt review by the inspector general of the threat to fire the Medicare actuary is a positive step,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said yesterday. “But it won’t answer the key question that goes to the heart of the credibility of the Bush administration: what did the president know, when did he know it, and why did he and the senior members of his administration mislead Congress and the nation on the Medicare bill?”

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said “everyone, including the administration was relying on the CBO estimate” for the Medicare bill. Mr. Duffy and top Republicans also noted that Congress is required by law to use CBO numbers as they craft legislation.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said neither CBO nor OMB estimates are usually correct anyway, and Democrats don’t truly care about the bill being too costly, since their prescription-drug proposal would have cost around $1 trillion.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said the administration didn’t have the $534 billion OMB estimate until Dec. 24, but that lawmakers involved in negotiating the bill were “well aware” as the bill was being crafted, that administration officials thought it would cost more than the CBO was estimating.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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