- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

President Bush said yesterday that his administration will deal with rising Medicare costs after fixing the Social Security system.

“There’s no question that there is an unfunded liability inherent in Medicare that Congress and the administration is going to have to deal with over time,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.

“Obviously, I’ve chosen to deal with Social Security first, and once we accomplish — once we modernize and save Social Security for a young generation of Americans, then it’ll be time to deal with the unfunded liabilities of Medicare.”

But the president said a new program to help seniors pay for prescription medicine has not yet taken effect and urged opponents of the program to be patient.

“Listen, the reforms haven’t even begun yet. I signed a piece of legislation last year, and the major reforms of providing prescription drugs for our seniors kicks in next year,” he said.

Meanwhile, the White House yesterday took the rare action of publicly taking issue with a news organization about an article. In a document titled “Setting the Record Straight,” the office of the press secretary said The Washington Post had used numbers in a front-page story that are “flat wrong.”

“Today’s Washington Post story (p. A1), headlined ‘Medicare Drug Benefit May Cost $1.2 Trillion,’ is simply wrong. The article says ‘the White House released budget figures yesterday indicating that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit will cost more than $1.2 trillion in the coming decade, a much higher price tag than President Bush suggested when he narrowly won passage of the law in late 2003.’ ”

The White House asked for a correction, but a Washington Post editor said yesterday that the paper stands by its story.

“We’re satisfied that our story is quite accurate and don’t see any need for a correction,” said Eric Pianin, congressional editor for The Post.

As part of correcting reports that came out yesterday from various news organizations, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the articles are using two different estimates when comparing the costs of the new prescription-drug plan for the elderly and poor.

“There are some reports I’ve seen today that are mixing apples and oranges and looking at two different time periods,” Mr. McClellan said.

The spokesman said reports about projections of the prescription-drug benefit costing $1.2 trillion from 2006 to 2015 are “simply not accurate.”

“It’s off by, essentially, a half-trillion dollars,” Mr. McClellan said, noting that in that period, the Medicare program will cost $723 billion, which reflects $134 billion in savings the government expects during that time because states are paying some drug costs; $145 billion more from beneficiaries’ premiums; and $200 billion in savings the program will create for Medicaid.

Still, the new numbers, showing the prescription-drug program costs reaching $100 billion a year by the middle of the next decade, drew the ire of Democrats, who accused the White House of using faulty projections.

“The Bush administration misrepresented to the Congress and the American people the true cost of the bill,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

She demanded that Congress hold oversight hearings on the Medicare prescription drug law and “reopen it to hold down costs and give seniors the true benefits they deserve.”

Some Republicans also are unhappy with the new projections.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, wants Congress to reopen the Medicare drug benefit law and add a means test, ensuring that the government provides prescription drug coverage only to those who need it most.

“I am not anxious to revisit the merits of the bill as I am to use this disconcerting news to drive reform into the Medicare entitlement before it takes effect,” he said, adding that many Republicans would not have voted for the Medicare bill had they known it was projected to cost any more than the $400 billion estimate they were provided at the time.

Amy Fagan contributed to this story.

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