Topic: Government & Politics

Medicare Deception

Some stories make one want to give up and go home. This is one.

Richard S. Foster, a nonpartisan Department of Health and Human Services official who has been Medicare’s chief actuary for nine years, now says that Thomas Scully, then administrator of the HHS agency that oversees Medicare, repeatedly told him last spring and summer that Foster would lose his job if he complied with requests from Republican and Democratic lawmakers to provide cost estimates of aspects of the prescription drug legislation. Foster’s analysis was that the prescription drug legislation favored by the White House would prove far more expensive than lawmakers had been told. This turned out to be the case.

“Certainly, Congress did not have all the information they might have wanted, or that we had,” Foster told reporters.

If accurate, this is a stunning revelation, and far worthier of serious congressional investigation than most of the scavenger hunts our elected representatives use to occupy their days. Normally, such an obvious violation of ethics (not to mention contempt of Congress) would be too straightforward for discussion here, but it is troubling that the story isn’t shaking the air waves. Why worry about Howard Stern if the administration willfully violate their duty to the public and mislead Congress? If Scully was acting on his own misguided sense of duty, that’s bad enough; if he was taking orders from the White House, maybe Al Franken’s book title isn’t so far off.

If the media seems to be asleep on this story, at least the Democrats are up in arms. Congressional Democrats (And why not Republicans too? Do they like to be deceived?) called for an ethics investigation and sent an angry letter to President Bush, who regards the new Medicare law as a major accomplishment. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) demanded a new vote on the measure, which passed the House and Senate by a couple of hairs, because “members of Congress were called to vote under false pretenses.”

He may be right.

Foster should not be left off the hook, either. According to the Washington Post’s report, he felt that he should resign in protest, but was talked out of doing so by his staff. Now he has a cushy consulting job, his prize for not rocking the boat when it could really be rocked. Instead of blowing the whistle, he followed orders (or threats; sometimes there is little difference) and dutifully did what Scully wanted, which was to hide the facts from Congress as it considered a multi-billion dollar change in the law. This is a reminder how important courage is in maintaining ethical standards. And also a reminder of how seldom courage is available when it is needed.

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