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Medicare estimate stirs talk

Bush administration officials had indications for months that the new Medicare prescription drug law might cost considerably more than the $400-billion advertised by the White House and Congress, according to internal documents.

The president's top health advisers gathered such evidence and shared it with select lawmakers long before the White House disclosed Thursday that it believes the program will cost $534-billion over the next decade, the Washington Post reported, citing congressional and other sources.

That's one-third more than the estimate widely used when Congress enacted the measure in November.

The higher forecast, coming less than two months after President Bush signed the landmark bill into law, has fueled conservative criticism of White House spending policies and prompted accusations that the administration deliberately withheld information as it pushed the bill through Congress.

Bush, addressing the controversy Friday, said aides first gave him a complete budget estimate for the Medicare law two weeks ago. "The Medicare reform we did is a good reform, fulfills a long-standing promise to our seniors," he said of the law, which will offer elderly Americans help in paying for medicine and encourage them to join private plans.

Sources familiar with the issue agreed that the White House did not finish its fiscal assessment of the law until this month, the Post reported. But administration officials made repeated preliminary cost estimates as the legislation was debated last year in Congress, and they knew congressional budget analysts often made lower projections of Medicare spending than did the Health and Human Services Department, according to the Post.

A June 11 document indicates that Medicare administrators were preparing detailed fiscal analyses of at least some versions of the proposed legislation significantly before its final passage.

The document _ drafted by the Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services _ says one Senate version of the Medicare drug bill would cost $551-billion over the next 10 years. That represents $151-billion more than the amount Congress cited upon passage in November, and $17-billion more than the estimate Bush will include in his 2005 budget blueprint Monday.