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Obamacare Hearings Recall Resignations of Bush HHS, Medicare Chiefs

November 6, 2013

The launch of the biggest health care overhaul in decades--one impacting 43 million Americans-- was a disaster.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that some of the administration's ads promoting the new program were illegal while others were misleading. GAO investigators also found that the White House illegally withheld data from Congress on the cost of the new law. The Congressman who crafted the bill soon left Capitol Hill for K Street, where he made millions of dollars annually as a heath care lobbyist. The new federal web site allowing people to compare plans and prices was delayed by weeks, while just 300 customer service reps manned the phones to help new enrollees. Yet over six million people immediately lost their coverage, while hundreds of thousands more were refused treatment because of malfunctions in the computer systems linking providers and insurers. In response to the mushrooming crisis, governors in mostly Democratic states spent billions to continue coverage for their residents, while the President pleaded with insurance companies not to cut off their current policyholders. Nevertheless, the White House sided with insurers and rejected bipartisan calls to delay the enrollment deadline even as public approval plummeted to 25 percent. It's no wonder John Boehner called the rollout of the administration's signature domestic policy achievement "horrendous."

But that program wasn't the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare; it was President George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug program. And while President Obama's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Medicare director Marilyn Tavenner are facing tough questions and calls for their resignations on Capitol Hill, their Bush-era counterparts faced no consequences at all. In fact, you can see them on your TV or in your local paper criticizing Obamacare right now.
Take, for example, former Bush HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. Despite the calamitous launch of Medicare Part D during his watch, in July Leavitt lectured the Obama administration on how to get the ACA roll-out right. (His lecture stressed the role of so-called "navigators," the hospitals, community groups, churches and non-profits the Bush administration then like the Obama administration now is using to provide outreach and enrollment assistance.) But while Leavitt admits the similarities to the bungled Bush Medicare Rx launch, the Salt Lake Tribune suggested that debacle was the equivalent of an ill-timed fart in comparison:

That drug benefit for seniors began with one big thud. Its website didn't work and seniors were turned away when they went to the pharmacy to pick up their pills.
In one rather embarrassing moment, Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor, who was then in charge of implementing the law, had a hard time helping his parents pick a plan that didn't threaten their broader health coverage.
But once those early mistakes were corrected and seniors were able to sign up, the drug benefit gained popularity and now is seen as a big success.

That last claim is true. More unpopular then than Obamacare is now, the Medicare prescription drug program now enjoys the support of 9 in 10 American seniors. Of course, the new benefit was much better than the alternative: nothing.
As it turns out, it's not just the Medicare Rx program which is now viewed as a success. Thomas A. Scully, who as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) helped ensure its passage in December 2003, is raking it in. As the New York Times recently reported, "During the past three years, as other Republicans have tried to overturn Obamacare, Scully searched for a way to make a killing from it":

As Scully walked to the front of the room, some 50 managers from hedge funds, mutual funds and private equity firms tucked into the round tables. Others gathered in the hallway. A hush of anticipation hung in the air...
Scully then segued to his main point, one he has been making in similarly handsome dining rooms across the country: No matter what investors thought about Obamacare politically -- and surely many there did not think much of it -- the law was going to make some people very rich.

If Scully's name sounds familiar, it should. After all, it wasn't just because "under George W. Bush, he ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and oversaw a host of proto-Obamacare reforms, like Medicare Part D, which introduced competition into the government-supported health care market." As the Times itself reported in September 2004, Scully was at the center of the Bush administration's effort to deceive Congress about its true projections for the cost of Medicare Part D:

The Bush administration illegally withheld data from Congress on the cost of the new Medicare law, and as a penalty, the former head of the Medicare agency, Thomas A. Scully, should repay seven months of his salary to the government, federal investigators said Tuesday.
The investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said Mr. Scully had threatened to fire the chief Medicare actuary, in violation of an explicit provision of federal appropriations law.
Accordingly, they said, federal money could not be used to pay Mr. Scully's salary after he began making the threats to the actuary in May 2003.

For his part, Scully insisted "I never did anything wrong, and I am proud of every minute of my three years at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.'" Two years later, he "agreed to pay nearly $10,000 to settle a dispute over whether he improperly billed the government for trips that he took while he was considering jobs in the private sector."
Neither Tom Scully nor his successor Mark McClellan was forced out of their jobs as a result of the mishandling of President Bush's Medicare prescription drug program. Neither was Michael Leavitt, who presided over the debacle as Bush's HHS Secretary. Now, he's dispensing advice to the Obama administration about the Affordable Care Act:

"To succeed, it should learn from our experiences with Part D -- what we did well and where we fell short."

Make that very, very short.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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