- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2012

The House Republicans’ top investigator has subpoenaed documents he thinks will prove the Obama administration is using a wasteful bonus program to cover up unpopular Medicare cuts until after the election.

Accusing the administration of stonewalling his requests over the past few months, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa intensified his search for documents related to the Medicare Advantage program, demanding Monday afternoon that Health and Human Service officials turn them over by the end of the week.

The documents concern a bonus demonstration program included in President Obama’s 2010 health care law to reward top-rated four- and five-star plans in the Medicare Advantage program for offering superior benefits. Administration officials soon made the reward more generous by including three-star plans, which had the effect of spreading out the benefits to more seniors — and effectively offsetting more than 70 percent of the cuts to the program until after Mr. Obama runs for re-election.

Medicare Advantage differs from traditional Medicare in that the coverage is offered through a private insurer such as an HMO, rather than directly from the government.

Republicans grew even more suspicious after the Government Accountability Office concluded in April that the administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tripled the program’s cost while failing to show that it would improve Medicare plans.

After sending the administration several requests for documents over the past few months, Mr. Issa threatened late last week to escalate the investigation to a formal subpoena, saying the administration has failed to respond in a timely manner.

“Your staff has run out of excuses, and the long delay in providing these documents is inexcusable,” Mr. Issa wrote, in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We are concerned that the only plausible explanation for the demonstration is that you decided to utilize a loophole in the Social Security Act to temporarily cover up Obamacare’s large cuts to the 13 million seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage until after this year’s election.”

Even though the agency turned over more than 1,000 documents on Thursday, Mr. Issa said that wasn’t sufficient, and carried out his threat on Monday by issuing a subpoena requiring HHS to respond by Friday at 5 p.m., according to a committee spokesman.

“More than half of the 1,300 pages delivered to my offices contain nothing more than rows of numeric data or nearly blank spreadsheet run-on pages that are of no assistance to the committee’s investigation, nor could they reasonably be believed to be of use to the committee,” Mr. Issa wrote, in another letter to Mrs. Sebelius on Friday.

House Republicans berated administration officials over the matter at a hearing Mr. Issa held in July, accusing them of wasting $8.3 billion in taxpayer funds, the estimated 10-year cost of the bonus program.

At the time, Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the bonus program is helping the administration accomplish key goals of encouraging plans to cut costs and improve benefits. While only 7 percent of seniors are presently enrolled in a five-star Medicare plan, the eventual goal is to make sure every senior has access to a top-rated plan, he said.

• Paige Winfield Cunningham can be reached at pcunningham@washingtontimes.com.

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