- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

President Bush had hoped that the passage of the Medicare prescription-drug bill would be one of the crowning achievements of his administration, but so far it has turned out to be one of the messiest policies, being attacked on several fronts.

There are two ongoing investigations into matters surrounding passage of the bill: one by the House ethics panel into whether Republicans offered a bribe to one member to secure his vote, and another by the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general into accusations that administration officials withheld higher cost estimates for the bill from lawmakers.

The administration has been hindered at every opportunity from making its case to the public, dogged by charges that its ad campaign is an illegal political strategy in a presidential election year.

And more bad news came this past week, when the annual Medicare trustees report estimated that the trust fund will go broke in 2019 — seven years sooner than they had predicted last year — partly because of the new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement.

“I think it probably has turned out messier than they thought it would be,” Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said of the new drug law.

“I tried to warn them. … I think we made a big mess. Instead of it being a plus, it’s becoming a negative,” said Mr. Lott, who voted against the measure because he thought it was too expensive and inadequate on reform.

Even some Republicans who voted for the measure agreed.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri said the situation is “a lot messier … than leadership and others who were espousing the virtues of the bill were expecting.”

“We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t end up being a net negative for passing the bill. It certainly hasn’t been yet a net positive,” said Rep. John T. Doolittle of California.

One of the main problems so far has been the discrepancy in cost estimates for the drug initiative. Congress used the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of $395 billion over 10 years, which it is bound by law to use.

But when Mr. Bush’s 2005 budget proposal emerged in February, administration officials put the Medicare law’s cost at $534 billion over 10 years — roughly a $140 billion difference —which angered many lawmakers.

“I think it makes us look bad as Republicans, and I think it makes us look foolish in Congress that our own administration, who is working hand-and-glove with us, basically blindsides us like this,” Mr. Doolittle said.

A coalition of conservative and fiscal-watchdog groups Thursday demanded that Congress halt the prescription-drug program from going into effect in 2006 because of its projected long-term costs.

Yet another bomb dropped when the administration’s top Medicare cost expert, Richard S. Foster, said his former superior, Tom Scully, who then headed Health and Human Services’ Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, wouldn’t let Mr. Foster provide lawmakers with higher cost estimates for parts of the Medicare bill as it was being crafted last summer.

Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft on Wednesday, demanding a criminal investigation into the matter and charging that two federal laws were broken by the suppression of information.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) currently is reviewing whether it was proper for the administration to send promotional videos of the new Medicare law to news outlets. GAO already has found that the administration’s televisions ads about the new law omit some information, but are nonetheless legal.

Republicans say the multiple attacks are purely political attempts by Democrats in an election year to distract from the fact that Republicans delivered on the long-standing promise to create a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

“They are engaging in every way possible to detract attention away from the fact that seniors are going to get the benefits of this bill,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

“This president promised … and he delivered, and the Democrats can’t stand that,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, adding that it’s a political asset for his party.

Mr. Doolittle also said he thinks passing the bill “was the right thing to do,” and he would vote for it again.

“This was something we were going to get hit on, whatever we did,” he said. “The bill puts fundamental changes in motion which will, in the end, change the system, [making it] less costly and more beneficial.”

And Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, noted that it’s “disingenuous” of Democrats to complain about the cost estimates of the Medicare prescription-drug law, when all of their Medicare drug proposals would have cost billions of dollars more than either estimate.

Democrats are working hard to make sure their charges stick.

“[T]here is an ethical cloud hanging over the Capitol and hanging over the White House,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said last week. “In the Capitol, there are allegations of bribery on the House floor. In the executive branch, there are documentations of threats of severe consequences on the job for telling the truth.”

“In the end, this bill isn’t going to be a political plus for the Republicans. It’s going to be a minus,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “The more senior citizens learn about what’s in this legislation, the angrier they get — and rightly so.”

So far, some polls indicate that Democrats are doing a good job of thrashing the new benefit package.

A CBS-New York Times poll earlier this month found that only 8 percent of those surveyed thought the bill will decrease prescription-drug costs, while four times that said it actually will increase costs.

And a poll conducted in late January by Andres McKenna Polling and Research found 59 percent of those surveyed think the legislation will force seniors into private health plans, and 67 percent think it will result in employers’ dropping their current coverage for retirees — two major charges by Democratic critics. Still, 61 percent rejected Democrats’ charges that the new law is the first step in getting rid of Medicare altogether.

The numbers show the Bush administration still can educate many people about the new law, because only 11 percent knew a lot about it, and the rest knew some, not much or nothing about it.

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