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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Here's one reason the Republicans want to keep American voters so focused on terrorism during the presidential election campaign they won't pay the slightest attention to any domestic shenanigans by the White House.

About two weeks before last Christmas, President Bush signed into law a new Medicare act -- the biggest expansion of Medicare since Lyndon Johnson brought it into being almost 40 years ago as part of his envisioned Great Society.

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Hanchette: Mt. Views
Staba: Citycide
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The new law offered drug benefits -- however complicated and confusing -- to all 41 million Medicare recipients.

It also offered private insurers a sweetheart of a business opportunity -- a mammoth role in the administration of such benefits.

And it quietly took away the bargaining power of Medicare bureaucrats to negotiate substantial taxpayer savings in drug costs for old people because of the gigantic federal purchasing power.

But let's set aside quibbles over whether the new statute actually works or not. Here's what I want you to focus on. What will it cost?

Congress wanted to know, too. The vote was shaping up as really tight.

The White House said it would cost about $400 billion over a decade -- a figure the legislators might find somewhat reasonable for the benefits promised. But lawmakers wanted to know precisely, so they asked the existing Medicare structure to provide an estimate.

So the chief Medicare actuary -- a veteran award-winning civil servant of 30 years standing named Richard S. Foster -- crunched the numbers. Internally, he came up with an astonishing discrepancy. Instead of the $400 billion the White House was putting forth as the price tag, it was apparent to Foster it would cost taxpayers $500 billion to $600 billion -- a mind-numbing difference even in this day and age of numbers no one can really wrap their minds around. Foster prepared to answer the congressional request.

Enter his boss, a political appointee named Thomas A. Scully, head of the giant Medicare agency. Scully threatened to fire Foster "so fast it will make your head spin" if he uttered one peep to Congress about the huge overage.

The new bill passed by a very tight margin after vigorous debate and some wheeling and dealing in chambers, and Bush signed it.

A couple of months after Christmas, the White House announced that, ahem, er, ahhh, ummm, well ... the new Medicare drug benefits would cost a little more than envisioned over the next 10 years -- a total price tag to taxpayers of $534 billion.

Democrats, and even some Republicans, howled. Enough members of Congress said they wouldn't have voted for the bill had they known that to make it clear the Medicare act would have gone down to defeat.

The whole deal began to stink like a month-dead carp. Scully quit his $145,600-a-year job. Guess where he landed?

You got it. He's now a registered lobbyist for three of the biggest drug companies. (A footnote here. After Bush signed the bill, many of the big pharmaceutical firms quickly raised prices on the drugs most used by old folks by double-digit percentages, thus wiping out many of the benefits touted in this cheesy bill.)

The inspector general of the House and Human Services Department got involved and investigated the foul odor wafting through Medicare offices.

Yep, found the IG, Scully had illegally withheld data from Congress on the cost of the new Medicare law. The IG passed the data onto the Government Accountability Office -- the watchdog agency for Congress.

It used to be the General Accounting Office, but the federal government likes to change agency names every few years or so just to confuse the living hell out of taxpayers.

The GAO looked into it and confirmed that Scully had threatened to fire Foster if he told the truth. The GAO found a dusty provision of federal appropriations law that was 92 years old. It said any federal employee who "threatens to prohibit or prevent" another one from communicating with Congress should have to repay his salary to taxpayers for the period of time the threats were successful. In Scully's case, that would amount to almost $85,000.

Now, do you think this wonderful public servant is going to cough that up for your benefit and mine? Hahahahahahaha.

Of course not. Scully told The New York Times his refusal to reimburse the federal government "is a matter of principle." That is so pitiful, it's almost funny.

Here's the kicker. The Bush administration didn't even quarrel with the facts. It instead argued that it is unconstitutional for Congress to compel the disclosure of data if the White House objects to it.

That's the same "executive privilege" argument another prominent Republican -- Richard Nixon -- once futilely tried to use to keep us from learning the truth about Watergate. Will the Justice Department or officials in the Department of Health and Human Services try to get the money back from Scully?

About as soon as Pope John Paul II plays third base for the Red Sox.

So here's what we're left with.

A lame and miserable health law that was doomed not to work from the get-go, and would end up costing about as much as the war with Iraq, a legitimate but smothered estimate of that cost that would have stopped it dead in its tracks -- and big rewards to the people who hid the truth by design.

And a White House that basically says, stick it where the sun doesn't shine -- we got away with it and what are you going to do about it?

Meanwhile, we get to watch a hugely important presidential election campaign with the implication that if we don't vote for the incumbent, we'll all die a gruesome death.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 14 2004