Thursday, March 18, 2004

Over The Transom

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from scandals and cover-ups, it’s that while the higher-ups get all the press, it’s usually the obscure clerks who provide the dirt that brings the scandal to light. That’s the case with the current Medicare cost controversy:

Late one Friday afternoon in January, after the House of Representatives had adjourned for the week, Cybele Bjorklund, a House Democratic health policy aide, heard the buzz of the fax machine at her desk. Coming over the transom, with no hint of the sender, was a document she had been seeking for months: an estimate by Medicare’s chief actuary showing the cost of prescription drug benefits for the elderly.

Dated June 11, 2003, the document put the cost at $551.5 billion over 10 years. It appeared to confirm what Ms. Bjorklund and her bosses on the House Ways and Means Committee had long suspected: the actuary, Richard S. Foster, had concluded the legislation would be far more expensive than Congress’s $400 billion estimate — and had kept quiet while lawmakers voted on the bill and President Bush signed it into law.

Ms. Bjorklund had been pressing Mr. Foster for his numbers since June. When he refused, telling her he could be fired, she said, she confronted his boss, Thomas A. Scully, then the Medicare administrator. “If Rick Foster gives that to you,” Ms. Bjorklund remembered Mr. Scully telling her, “I’ll fire him so fast his head will spin.” Mr. Scully denies making such threats.

These conversations among three government employees — an obscure Congressional aide, a little-known actuary and a high-level official — remained secret until now, and Ms. Bjorklund still does not know who sent the fax. But Mr. Foster went public last week, and details of his struggle for independence within the Bush administration are now emerging, raising questions about whether the White House intentionally withheld crucial data from lawmakers.

Remember John Dean? (Watergate) Fawn Hall? (Iran-Contra) Jessica Hahn? (Jim Bakker). This proves the axiom that if you really want to know who runs the country, it’s not the bosses but the people who work for the bosses…and we are the ones with the scruples!