Medicare Bill Has Census Provision

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta will recommend that President Clinton veto a $28 billion Medicare bill on grounds a last-minute provision could threaten the confidentiality of census data.

The Republican-written Medicare plan with the census provision was expected to reach the House floor Thursday or Friday as part of a tax bill that would boost retirement savings and help businesses absorb the cost of a higher minimum wage.

``Our job from the very beginning has been not only to provide a quality program for seniors but a quality program that has choice,'' said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee. ``That's the goal and the purpose of this package.''

``We believe it meets those criteria, and we will be finalizing the pieces and moving them forward,'' Thomas said.

Democrats, however, are complaining about the amount of money allocated to managed care companies. They also object to a provision that would allow the Congressional Budget Office access to federal census and tax records to make long-term projections about the viability of the Social Security and Medicare programs.

``If this proposal is adopted by the Congress, I will recommend a presidential veto of the legislation,'' Mineta said in a letter Wednesday night to members of Congress and in response to a separate letter from CBO director Dan Crippen.

The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.

Mineta's letter referred to time he spent in an internment camp during World War II, when 120,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The Census Bureau has apologized several times for providing the War Department information to locate Japanese-Americans and has promised such breaches in confidentiality would not happen again.

``I fail to see why this history should make the Commerce Department, or the Congress, less concerned about the confidentiality of census information,'' Mineta said. ``I must restate the strongest opposition of the Department of Commerce to any effort to alter the privacy protections'' without more stringent congressional review.

The tax records are already available to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, but the Census Bureau is concerned that information can be used to identify an individual's census data.

``The CBO has not asked for any personal identifying information whatsoever,'' Chip Walker, spokesman for Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform census subcommittee, said Thursday.

The provision says that CBO will abide by the same confidentiality laws and regulations that the Census Bureau already abides by, Walker said. Census data are confidential under federal law.

Clinton and Republicans had announced Wednesday they were nearing agreement on the tax bill. But it was unclear how the administration might respond to the attachment of the Medicare package, which Clinton has already threatened to veto in its current form.

Medicare is the federal health insurance program for the elderly and for the disabled. The package moving through Congress aims to restore cuts made in 1997 to balance the budget. Health care providers and managed care companies have threatened to shut down unless the government improves reimbursement levels.

But the White House has complained that the measure gives too much to managed care companies while neglecting patients' needs. About $10 billion would go to managed care companies.

Republicans argue that the bill does improve patient benefits. They point to improvements such as phasing down the outpatient co-payment from 60 percent to 40 percent, increasing Pap smear screenings, offering colon cancer screenings for all Medicare patients and allowing coverage of new digital mammograms.

The Medicare package also includes a provision, pushed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, delaying plans to close a loophole in the Medicaid law that lets states collect billions in extra dollars.

Illinois is a major benefactor of the loophole. The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a proposed rule that phases out the loophole over five years. The Hastert plan starts the phaseout and year later than the government — in 2003 — and ends the payments over a longer period of time.