Tuesday, May 04, 2004
HHS/CMS effort to silence CMS' chief actuary probably violated federal law.
The Congressional Research Service on Monday concluded that Bush administration officials "appear to have violated federal law" by barring CMS chief actuary Richard Foster from sharing with lawmakers his cost estimates for the Medicare legislation, the Wall Street Journal reports (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 5/4). CRS is a branch of the Library of Congress and provides nonpartisan analysis and research to lawmakers (Pugh, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4). The analysis comes more than one month after Foster told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that he had shared with Doug Badger, President Bush's health policy adviser, and James Capretta, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, his analysis that the Medicare legislation would exceed its target spending goal. According to OMB estimates released after Congress passed the legislation, the Medicare law will cost $534 billion over the next 10 years, $134 billion more than estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. Foster has said that the higher cost projection was known before the final House and Senate votes on the legislation in November but that former CMS Administrator Tom Scully told him, "We can't let that get out." In an e-mail to colleagues at CMS, Foster indicated he believed he might lose his job if he revealed his cost estimates for the Medicare legislation. Scully has said that he did not threaten to fire Foster if the higher estimates were released. Scully also said that he "curbed Foster on only one specific request" made by Democrats at the time of the first House vote on the Medicare bill (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 3/25).
Analysis Details. In a nine-page memo to Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, CRS said that federal officials "do not have the right to prevent or prohibit" employees from sharing information concerning "relevant public policy issues" to congressional members (Goldstein, Washington Post, 5/4). Further, Congress' "right to receive truthful information from federal agencies to assist in its legislative functions is clear and unassailable," the analysis states. According to CRS, since 1912, federal laws have protected federal employees' rights to communicate with lawmakers, and more recent laws have "reaffirmed and strengthened" those rights (Pear, New York Times, 5/4). Jack Maskell, a legislative lawyer at CRS, said that in 1997, "when some lawmakers felt that the Clinton administration threatened the candor of federal health experts, House and Senate appropriations conferees wrote into health care legislation" that the CMS Office of the Actuary serves both the administration and the Congress, the Inquirer reports. In addition, the legislation states that the actuary's independence to provide data to Congress is "vital," according to the Inquirer (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4). Thus, Scully's order "would appear to violate a specific and express prohibition of federal law," according to CRS (New York Times, 5/4). However, CRS said that such an act "may not rise to level of a criminal violation" (Heil, CongressDaily, 5/3). According to the Inquirer, Scully probably could not be prosecuted because "only individual lawmakers sought Foster's estimates." Scully could not be reached for comment Monday (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4).
Democrats' Response. The CRS report prompted Rangel, who requested the analysis, and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee ranking member, to request a new committee hearing on the estimates (CongressDaily, 5/3). According to the Journal, some House Democrats "seized the nine-page memo" to reaffirm their argument for subpoenas to make Scully and Badger testify regarding their knowledge of the "alleged 'gag order'" (Wall Street Journal, 5/4). Scully and Badger declined to appear before the House panel when it considered the estimates last month (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 4/2). In a letter, Rangel and Stark reminded House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who has declined previous requests to subpoena Scully or Badger, that he has said he would support a subpoena "if it was clear that laws had been broken," CongressDaily reports. In the letter, Rangel and Stark said, "It is clear that laws were broken. ... Indeed, the administration's steadfast refusal even now to release the requested information raises serious questions as to the ongoing violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of these laws" (CongressDaily, 5/3). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson last week said he would not release additional documents related to Bush administration cost estimates for the Medicare law, despite a formal request from Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 4/29).
Administration Reaction According to the Journal, CRS "is respected by the administration" and therefore, the CRS analysis "makes it harder to isolate the complaints as driven by election-year politics and Democrats who opposed the bill" (Wall Street Journal, 5/4). However, HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce on Monday said that the department is "focusing on instituting the new Medicare law and not on the Scully-Foster controversy" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/4). Pierce added that "we are looking to the future, not the past" (New York Times, 5/4).