Investigation urged on Medicare data

Holding back information violated a federal law, Senate Democrats charge

March 19, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats, reacting to disclosures that Thomas A. Scully, the former Medicare administrator, had prevented his chief actuary from sharing information with Congress, said yesterday that they believed a federal law had been violated and called on the General Accounting Office to investigate.

In a letter signed by 18 senators, including the minority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the lawmakers cited a provision in an appropriations measure that bars using federal money to pay the salary of any employee who "prohibits or prevents, or threatens to prohibit or prevent" another employee from communicating with Congress.

The letter was sent amid a growing furor on Capitol Hill over recent accounts by the actuary, Richard S. Foster, that Scully threatened to fire him if he disclosed cost estimates of the prescription drug legislation Congress passed last year.

The issue is important because Foster's estimates were considerably higher than the figures lawmakers used in considering the bill, and support for the measure, which passed narrowly, could have eroded had the higher figures been known.

"I believe these actions by Bush administration officials to block Mr. Foster from providing Congress the true costs of the prescription drug bill clearly break federal law," said Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, the lead author of the letter. Lautenberg added, "How many administration officials knew about it, and who in the administration gave the order to conceal the information?"

Scully has denied threatening to fire Foster but has confirmed telling him to withhold information from Congress.

Republicans accuse Democrats of exploiting the controversy for political gain. "My view is, it's much ado about nothing," said GOP Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana.

But Democrats are ratcheting up their attacks. Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California said yesterday that he was drafting a letter to the White House asking who, beyond Scully, was involved in preventing the actuary from sharing his estimates. A spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said Kennedy was considering a measure that would make the Medicare agency independent.

With Foster scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee in the actuary's annual appearance on Capitol Hill, both parties are bracing for the controversy to intensify.

Democratic aides on Capitol Hill say they have known for months of Foster's dispute with Scully. But the story spilled into the open over the weekend. In an interview with The New York Times, Foster said he had kept quiet about his figures because he was told that "the consequences of insubordination would be very severe."

Yesterday, Foster shared an e-mail message from Scully's chief aide, Jeffery Flick, containing that warning in nearly identical language. The e-mail message, first published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, instructed Foster not to share his responses to inquiries from Cybele Bjorklund, a House Democratic health policy aide, "with anyone else until Tom Scully explicitly talks with you - authorizing the release of information." It added, "The consequences for insubordination are extremely severe."

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