Administration's numbers on drug benefit not conducive to credibility - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Administration's numbers on drug benefit not conducive to credibility

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Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2005 8:23 pm | Updated: 8:22 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Put this in the category of "What else aren't they telling us?"

New Bush administration estimates show the aggregate cost of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit for the 10 years from 2006, the first full year of the program, to 2015 will be $1.2 trillion.

That came as a bombshell on Capitol Hill. When the program was passed in late 2003, many Republicans were uneasy about enacting the largest government entitlement since the Great Society but were mollified by administration assurances that it would cost only $400 billion over 10 years.

The Bush administration protests, with some justification, that the comparison is unfair. The $400 billion cost was calculated over the 10 years that included 2004 and 2005 before the drug benefit actually begins, when the cost would naturally be lower.

Medicare chief Mark McClellan says when scheduled higher premiums and deductibles and reimbursements from the states are factored in, the net 10-year cost, 2006 to 2015, will be more like $720 billion. That's still much higher than Congress was led to believe.

And the White House is still suffering from the duplicity it used to sell the drug benefit to skeptical Republicans. As it was, GOP House leaders had to hold the vote open late into the night until they could twist enough arms to secure passage by a five-vote margin. Then, almost as soon as the benefit had passed, the administration disclosed that the real 10-year cost would be more like $534 billion — and it turned out that the administration had known this all along. To keep it quiet, Medicare's chief actuary was threatened with dismissal if he spoke up. The bill would not have passed had the higher cost been known.

Now Republicans are demanding that somehow those costs be held down. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said, "Since it was sold as a $400 billion program, that's what we should keep it at." And Democrats are clamoring for the drug law to be reopened to include two provisions — allowing the government to negotiate discounts and legalizing re-importation of cheaper drugs from Canada.

Congress is already skeptical of the cost estimates in Bush's new 2006 budget and the assumptions he's using to justify Social Security reform, and this latest little slipup hasn't helped the administration's credibility on numbers.

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