White House OKs probe of drug cost

Data on Medicare plan allegedly was withheld


WASHINGTON - White House officials endorsed yesterday plans for an investigation into whether administration officials withheld cost information from Congress to downplay the expense of prescription drug coverage in Medicare.

"Obviously, it's a serious allegation," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at a morning briefing.

McClellan gave the White House's blessing to plans by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct an internal investigation into whether a top agency analyst was threatened with dismissal if he gave Congress an up-to-date estimate of the cost of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The analyst, Richard S. Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the threat came from then-Medicare administrator Thomas Scully.

Knight Ridder first reported Foster's allegation March 12, triggering calls in Congress for an investigation. Foster concluded that the drug benefit could cost at least $100 billion more than the $395 billion that Congress was told when it approved the bill in November.

Thirteen conservative GOP members of the House of Representatives had vowed to vote against the measure if it cost more than $400 billion.

Scully, who is no longer with the Medicare agency, has denied threatening to fire Foster. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who ordered the internal investigation by the department's inspector general, has said that Foster doesn't have to fear dismissal.

"It's a matter that HHS is addressing," McClellan said in a later interview. "Secretary Thompson has taken an appropriate step."

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