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Democratic Move to Revisit Medicare Bill Rejected

Republicans dismiss as election year politics allegations that the administration withheld information on the costs of adding a drug benefit.

March 14, 2004|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House and congressional Republicans on Saturday rejected Democratic demands that Congress reconsider the landmark Medicare prescription legislation approved last year.

The call for revisiting the legislation followed statements by Richard S. Foster, the top financial analyst for Medicare, that Bush administration officials ordered him to withhold information from Congress during the Medicare prescription drug debate.

Foster said he believed last June that he would be fired if he responded to lawmakers' requests for information on how much specific provisions of the bill would cost and how the legislation would affect the traditional Medicare program.

Democratic lawmakers seized on his comments to raise new questions about President Bush's credibility on Medicare and other issues, charging that Foster's statements were evidence that the administration covered up the true costs of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

"The president must be held to account for this deception," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement. "This administration is showing again and again that its word cannot be trusted."

Kennedy and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sent Bush a letter Friday, asking him, in essence, when he knew that his administration's cost estimate was higher than that of the Congressional Budget Office, and why he did not disclose the higher estimate to lawmakers before they voted on the prescription drug bill.

But Republicans dismissed the Democrats' allegations as politically motivated. "I don't know of any cover-up," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

"What's most important, and what we ought to be talking about, is implementing" the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

Foster's allegations, first reported Friday by Knight-Ridder, intensified the political fight that has raged since Congress passed the Medicare prescription drug bill in November. Bush considers enactment of the $534-billion prescription drug benefit one of his administration's key domestic-policy accomplishments, but Democrats say it benefits insurance companies and drug manufacturers more than seniors.

The nation's top two Democratic lawmakers, Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, said Friday that Congress should reopen the debate, perhaps first voting to repeal the new law before considering a new version altogether.

But with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate and election-year politics dominating the legislative calendar, a reconsideration of the historic legislation is unlikely.

Although most Democratic lawmakers voted against the bill, which they said would force seniors and disabled people into managed-care plans and ultimately undermine traditional Medicare, they have managed in recent months to turn voters' tepid response to the complex law to their political advantage.

Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates began accusing the administration of a Medicare cover-up in January, when the administration said it expected the new law to cost taxpayers $534 billion over 10 years, more than a third more than the official $400-billion ceiling Republican and administration officials had committed themselves to during the debate.

The administration's higher cost estimate also angered many conservative Republicans who, pressured by the White House, had voted for the prescription drug bill despite their concerns about the growing federal deficit.

In June, an original version of the legislation passed the House by a 216-215 vote; in November the final legislation again squeezed through the House, passing by a vote of 220 to 215 after Republican leaders held the vote open for an unprecedented three hours.

Foster said Saturday he believed the narrow vote margins and high political stakes surrounding the debate prompted then-Medicare Administrator Thomas A. Scully to order him to withhold information from members of Congress.

"The concern I had at the time was that the results that we prepared that could be used to support the legislation ... those were generally given to the congressional requesters," Foster said in an interview with The Times. "But anything we did that could perhaps be used against the legislation was not released or, in one case, was released only after" administration officials were pressured.

Under normal circumstances, the Office of the Actuary, which conducts technical financial analyses of Medicare- and Medicaid-related legislation, provides such information and often conducts specific analysis for members of Congress upon request.

But in an e-mail message in early June and in a subsequent telephone call from his assistant, Scully ordered him to suspend that practice, Foster said. Although he was not told he would be fired for following normal procedures, Foster said he understood that's what would happen if he did.

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