Probe under way on Medicare cost
Staffer says job was threatened
From Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Department of Health and Human Services has launched an internal investigation to see whether a senior government staffer was pressured to withhold information from Congress about the true cost of the Medicare prescription drug bill.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced the probe Tuesday.
Rick Foster, chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has said that then-agency chief Thomas Scully threatened his job if he answered questions from congressional Democrats about the cost of the bill before a series of key votes last summer.
"Tom Scully sent an e-mail directing that we not respond to these requests and warning that the consequences of insubordination were extremely severe," Foster said. "I took that to mean that if I sent the responses, they would go ahead and fire me."
At issue is an assessment by Foster that the bill -- in its form in June -- would cost $551 billion, far more than the $400 billion limit set by Congress.
Senior members of both parties involved in the Medicare negotiations said they would have liked to have known about that figure and that it's customary for Medicare actuaries to inform Congress of their calculations.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bill squeaked through the House of Representatives over considerable resistance from conservative Republicans, who said the cost of the drug benefit program worried them.
"Doggone it, if there was a difference in numbers and we knew about it upfront, we should have had the opportunity to explore what that difference was," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia.
Scully, who has since left the agency, denied that he threatened to fire Foster.
"I never once threatened to fire him," Scully said. "I never once had the conversation -- 'Don't release the overall score of the bill' -- because it didn't exist."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said he welcomed the investigation.
"I am pleased that Secretary Thompson has acknowledged the growing scandal over the Medicare drug bill and has pledged an independent inquiry into the misconduct," Daschle said.
"Allegations that the administration withheld critical information from policymakers and threatened the career of a public servant must be fully and thoroughly investigated."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, an early supporter of the bill but who voted against it in its final form, said the investigation is only the first step.
"It won't answer the key question that goes to the heart of the credibility of the Bush administration: What did the president know, when did he know it, and why did he and the senior members of his administration continue to claim that the legislation would cost $400 billion when their best estimate was that it would cost much more?"
Although the administration initially projected the cost of the bill at $400 billion, its new budget puts the price tag closer to $530 billion.
The president signed the bill into law in December.