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White House Says GOP Figurees On Meicare Underestimated

By Ann Devroy and Spencer Rich
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

In a swift political counterstrike, the White House Monday said House Republicans are significantly underestimating the cost to elderly Americans of their Medicare plans, with premium increases likely to be three times what Republicans estimate.

Even before the GOP formally unveils its plan to save $270 billion in the Medicare program over the next seven years - considered one of the most difficult and politically perilous tasks facing the Republicans this fall - the White House Monday said it doesn't add up.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Sunday that the monthly premium increases for Medicare Part B, the part that pays for doctors rather than hospital care, would increase by only $7 per beneficiary by 2002. But the White House said that based on the sketchy details Gingrich provided, the monthly premium in 2002 would have to be $104.30, a $21.50 increase from what the administration estimates it would be if the program were left unchanged.

In addition, the White House asserted that, based upon the information that has been released, Republicans are billions short in reaching their savings goal. Under any description, officials said, seniors are going to pay more and get less than the Republicans are letting on.

The swift counteroffensive is a symbol of the potency of the Medicare issue to both Democrats and Republicans and a sign of things to come. House Republicans are to unveil their full plan by early next week, and the savings they can wring from Medicare are an intricate piece of reaching a balanced federal budget in seven years while still reducing taxes. The White House has also proposed Medicare savings - $124 billion over seven years - but has declined to show its specifics until after the Republicans. Administration officials take the position that if the Republicans would drop their tax cuts, all sides could agree on $125 billion to $150 billion with far less pain for seniors.

Perhaps stung by charges from Democrats and some senior groups that the GOP would hit beneficiaries with large new out-of-pocket payments, the House GOP plan appears to have dropped several provisions listed in early outlines, though provisions are still not final and could be altered.

With large chunks of the GOP plan still unannounced, Democrats nonetheless went into full-throated attack Monday. In the House, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., accused Gingrich of playing a "shell game" in disguising the true cost to seniors and failing to detail the savings, as well as in considering what amounts to a multibillion cap on spending if their projections turn out to be wrong. "The fact is, there is no way you can carve $270 billion out of Medicare without making seniors pay more for less," he said.