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THE NATION

Secrecy Probed in Medicare Plan Cost Estimates

Democrats want to learn whether White House officials had a higher quote withheld.

March 20, 2004|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Several Democratic lawmakers on Friday asked the White House to produce documents that they hoped would show whether officials there were behind a decision to withhold from Congress a higher cost estimate for the Medicare prescription drug bill.

Administration officials said that while they did not tell Richard S. Foster, Medicare's top financial analyst, or his boss, Thomas A. Scully, to keep Congress in the dark, they would not release related correspondence or records of meetings and telephone calls.

"There is a long-standing rule that deliberative materials remain nonpublic," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "That's an essential tool for the executive branch to be able to do its business."

Foster has said in interviews that Scully told him he would be fired if he provided Congress with his analysis of the Medicare bill. But Duffy on Friday denied the White House was behind any alleged threats.

Throughout the contentious debate over the drug benefit last fall, President Bush and Republican lawmakers insisted they would not approve a bill that cost more than $400 billion. In June, Foster estimated that the bill would cost $515 billion over 10 years.

Several conservative Republicans have said that they would have voted against the bill had they known of the higher estimate.

Scully has denied that he seriously threatened to fire Foster.

Doug Badger, White House senior health policy analyst, said Friday that "to the best of [his] recollection," he learned about a threat by Scully "in jest" to fire Foster only after it had happened -- sometime in June -- and did not instigate it. "I was not involved in that," he said in a telephone interview.

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday printed an e-mail that Foster had received from Scully's assistant, telling Foster not to release certain information without Scully's approval and warning him that "the consequences for insubordination are extremely severe."

In January, the administration announced that its estimate of the bill's cost was $534 billion, far surpassing the $400-billion figure from the Congressional Budget Office.

Administration officials continued to insist, however, that the CBO estimate was the official one.

Democrats, most of whom had voted against the legislation, have seized on the dispute over the estimate, saying it raises questions about the administration's credibility.

Letters sent to the White House on Friday by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and four other House members represent the Democrats' effort to directly connect the Bush White House to the controversy.

The Department of Health and Human Services "rarely acts on its own on issues of this magnitude, especially when they have major ramifications for the federal budget," Waxman said in letters to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Josh Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has ordered an internal investigation of the matter. Foster has said in interviews that he suspects other administration officials, possibly including Badger, were behind the order to silence him.

On Thursday, 18 Democratic senators requested a General Accounting Office investigation into whether federal laws that cover providing information to Congress were violated.

Duffy accused Democrats of "spinning up the Washington process" in an effort to undermine a law they opposed.

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