The Medicare Mess

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George Bush and his G.O.P. allies in Congress thought the Medicare prescription-drug benefit they enacted last December would take a key issue away from the Democrats and entice millions of seniors to vote Republican this November. Instead, the legislation is fast becoming "an albatross around our necks," a G.O.P. Congressman tells TIME. "It's not playing very well with seniors." Surveys indicate that the elderly are confused about the complicated prescription-drug benefits — which don't fully kick in until 2006--in the nearly 700-page law and are skeptical that drug costs will be lowered. Now questions about how the bill was pushed through Congress could make them even more leery. The House Ethics Committee and the FBI launched investigations into whether G.O.P. members of the House offered fellow Republican Nick Smith of Michigan a bribe — in the form of a hefty contribution to his son's congressional campaign — to vote for the measure on Nov. 22. And the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began a probe into charges by Richard Foster, Medicare's top cost analyst, that the program's then administrator, Thomas Scully, threatened to fire him last June if he told Congress the prescription-drug bill would cost more than $500 billion, well above the $400 billion the Administration had publicly acknowledged. The higher number wasn't released until after the vote. (Scully denies making the threat.)

It could get worse. Families USA, a public-interest group critical of the law, will hold town-hall meetings with seniors in 22 cities over the next 11 weeks to point out flaws in the measure. HHS spokesman Bill Pierce accuses Democrats of trying to poison seniors' attitudes toward the new law with "cynical politics." Republicans are hoping it will get a warmer reception by June, when seniors can start buying drug-discount cards from Medicare. Administration officials estimate that the cards, which will cost up to $30 annually, will save seniors 10% to 25% per prescription.