GAO: Fmr. Medicare Head Should Pay Back Salary

The former Medicare (search) administrator should repay his government salary because of his efforts to keep higher estimates of the cost of a prescription drug plan (search) from Congress last year, congressional investigators said Tuesday.

The recommendation from the Government Accountability Office (search) reignited the controversy over the passage of the Medicare overhaul and questions about whether the Bush administrat Medicare premiums for non-hospital care will rise a record $11.60 a month next year, which administration officials said was partly attributable to provisions of the new law.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry linked the concealment and premium increase in an appeal to older voters. "The Bush administration broke the law by covering up the true cost of their phony Medicare bill, and George W. Bush broke his promise to seniors in his convention speech when he told them Medicare was sound and then increased premiums by a record 17 percent the very next day," Kerry said.

Bill Pierce, a Health and Human Services Department (search) spokesman, said Democratic criticism of the prescription drug law is politically motivated. Pierce called on Democrats "to focus on the health of seniors instead."

The Associated Press reported last year that Thomas Scully, the Medicare chief until December, threatened to fire chief Medicare actuary Richard Foster to prevent him from giving the information to lawmakers.

Federal law prohibits a federal agency from paying the salary of an official who prevents another federal employee from communicating with Congress, GAO said.

"Because HHS was prohibited from paying Mr. Scully's salary after he barred Mr. Foster from communicating with Congress, HHS should consider such payments improper," GAO general counsel Anthony Gamboa wrote in a report to Democratic senators who requested it. "Therefore, we recommend that HHS seek to recover these payments."

An earlier report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (search) also concluded that the administration was wrong to keep the information from Congress.

Scully, who now works for a law firm and investment bank, said GAO never interviewed him. Asked whether he would return any of his salary, Scully said, "I'm not sure that's relevant. It's not up to GAO anyway."

Pierce said HHS will not ask Scully to return his salary. "We fundamentally disagree," with GAO, Pierce said.

The administration argued in a July report that no laws were broken. Scully "has the final authority to determine the flow of information to Congress," the HHS inspector general's office said.

The administration has adamantly refused to release Foster's estimates, even since the law's enactment in December. House Democrats have sued for the documents in federal court. The Associated Press, which sought the same materials under the Freedom of Information Act, (search) received 13 pages that had previously been made public.

The administration withheld another 150 pages that HHS acknowledged are responsive to the AP's request.