Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Medicare scandal -- is it really so different from the WMD Scandal?

MSNBC - The Smell of a Real Scandal
... The whole world knows we "got taken for a ride," as the president of Poland says, on Iraq. But because Bush & Co. were as shocked as anyone at the absence of WMD, that's more in the category of grotesque hype than outright lie. The Medicare story is a clearer example of dishonesty and, yes, corruption at high levels. As former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill's statements make clear, the lying about budget numbers began early in the administration, when the White House falsely claimed that the government could not use the surplus to further draw down the debt. It continued after 9/11, when an assistant Treasury secretary complained that the administration was squandering the national consensus by insisting on tax-cut projections that weren't real. But the most shocking deception took place in the run-up to the signing of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit on Christmas Eve.

Recall how that bill squeaked through Congress only after some heads were cracked. A retiring Republican from Michigan, Rep. Nick Smith, even charges that supporters of the bill offered him a bribe in the form of financial support for the political campaign of his son. The bill was priced at the time at $400 billion over 10 years. After the deed was done (the specifics of which amounted to a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical and health-care industries), it came out that the real cost will be at least $551.5 billion—a difference of $150-plus billion that will translate into trillions over time. Now we learn that the Bush administration knew the truth beforehand and squelched it. Rick Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare, says he was told he would be fired if he passed along the higher estimates to Congress. 'I'll fire him so fast his head will spin,' Thomas Scully, then head of Medicare, said last June, according to an aide who has now gone public.

This journalist is doing a backhand favor to Bush; he tries to claim the WMD affair was merely a misunderstanding, whereas the medicare affair is real foul play.

I think he's wrong about them being so dissimilar. A common theme is forcing others to provide the "right" answer, where "right" is whatever Bush defines "right" to be. (Maybe because God tells him what's "right"? Hard to argue with that one.) Bush deals with competing perspectives ruthlessly -- as his people dealt with Valerie Plame. He's no scientist, nor much of a rationalist. He's definitely decisive -- which is easy when you know the right answer to everything.

In the medicare affair Bush knew the right answer. It would be affordable. Sculley did the dirty work; he's since been richly rewarded by the pharmaceutical industry. (It's a measure of the decay of our press that the timing and nature of Sculley's transition passed with little comment.)

But is this really such a shocking scandal? It would only be shocking if the representatives and senators who voted for the medicare bill really believed Bush's numbers -- and were "shocked, shocked" to discover a true yearly cost 40% higher than they'd voted for. I rather doubt that. They knew what they were voting for; the HHS numbers were just political cover for some fiscally conservative republicans who needed an excuse while they betrayed their core values. Yes, the leadership of the AARP also needed these numbers. Their rewards await them.

The people who feel genuinely wronged are probably the career professionals in Health and Human Services who trusted Secretary Thompson. He's had a long and distinguished career, this does not reflect well on him.

What is it about the Bush administration that seems to corrupt so many good people so quickly? One day maybe we'll have a seminar on the topic with Thompson, Powell, O'Neill, Whitman and every economist and science advisor Bush has owned.

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