Richard S. Foster, a nonpartisan Department of Health and Human Services official who has been Medicare's chief actuary for nine years, said he nearly resigned in protest because he thought the top Medicare administrator, and perhaps White House officials, were acting against the public interest by withholding information about how much changes to the program would cost.
"Certainly, Congress did not have all the information they might have wanted, or that we had," Foster said in an interview.
He said Thomas A. Scully, then administrator of the HHS agency that oversees Medicare, repeatedly told him last spring and summer that Foster would be fired if he complied with requests from Republican and Democratic lawmakers to provide cost estimates of various aspects of the prescription drug legislation. Although other HHS officials ultimately assured him his job was safe, Foster said, the administration's practice of withholding budget predictions continued until the legislation was enacted in November.
Foster is regarded in government and policy circles as a competent and neutral civil servant. His disclosure set off the latest escalation of a partisan war over Medicare that has been playing out since Congress adopted the largest expansion in the history of the health insurance program for the elderly.
Yesterday, congressional Democrats called for an ethics investigation and dispatched a bitter letter to President Bush, who frequently cites the new Medicare law as one of his proudest domestic accomplishments. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) demanded a new vote on the measure, which barely passed the House and Senate, saying that "members of Congress were called to vote under false pretenses."