Medicare drug-law brouhaha continues

New battles erupting over bill's benefits, taint of bribery investigations

March 20, 2004|By Kristina Herrndobler | Kristina Herrndobler,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - When the president signed a $534 billion Medicare prescription drug bill into law in December, it culminated years of dispute and deliberation and appeared certain to provide a big boost to Republicans on the campaign trial.

Instead, the bill's passage has set off a new round of battles over the law's benefits and Congress' extraordinarily close vote to approve it. The law has been tainted by official investigations into whether a bribe was offered and Congress was misled, and into whether government resources were misused to promote it.

The furor has eclipsed the enactment of the law, the biggest expansion of the government social safety net in a generation. And it has thrown into question how history will view what President Bush considers one of his proudest achievements.

After an unprecedented three-hour vote in the House that allowed extra time for leaders to twist the arms of wavering members, the bill passed by five votes.

But a series of investigations that intensified over the past week shows just how little the vote did to calm the storm over drugs for the elderly.

Ethics committee probe

The House Ethics Committee announced this week it would look into whether any lawmaker promised Rep. Nick Smith, a Michigan Republican, that his son's congressional campaign would benefit if he changed his "no" vote to a "yes." Such a promise could amount to a bribe. Smith, who did not change his vote, at first suggested that did happen but has backed off the claim.

Meanwhile, Richard Foster, the government's top expert on Medicare costs, has said former Medicare chief Tom Scully threatened to fire him if he gave lawmakers his honest estimate of the bill's costs. Scully has strongly denied this.

The administration said before the vote that the program of reforms would cost $395 billion, and 13 House Republicans threatened to vote against the bill if it cost more than $400 billion.

Foster produced an estimate of $551 billion before the vote, but key lawmakers were not informed of the higher estimate. The Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General is investigating.

Another dispute erupted over fake newscasts that the administration has created promoting the new law's benefits. The General Accounting Office is investigating whether the newscasts are proper.

The new Medicare law will provide a prescription drug card beginning this year with discounts of 15 percent or 25 percent, and low-income seniors would receive an additional $600 annual subsidy.

Beginning in 2006, seniors will be able to enroll in a Medicare drug plan or join a private health insurance plan offering drug coverage.

Issue for both parties

Political analyst Jennifer Duffy said both parties are likely to use the issue in this year's campaign.

"President Bush has kept his promise to strengthen and modernize Medicare and provide prescription drug coverage to our seniors," said Bush campaign spokeswoman Merrill Smith.

Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, viewed it differently.

"The good news about this bill is that it doesn't go into effect until 2006, and it can be fixed before the damage is done and more immediate relief can come to seniors," he said.

Duffy said that while the candidates are focusing on the war and the economy now, the Medicare issue will likely heat up as the campaign unfolds.

"It is a question of who you believe and who you trust," she said, "and I think the jury is still out."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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