HHS chief asks for more money for overburdened Medicare agency

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday that it would be difficult for the agency to take on more responsibility without new resources, including oversight under a patients' rights bill such as the one being debated in the Senate.

"I am certainly not encouraging any more oversight as far as HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] is concerned - especially since our primary concern is prescription drugs," Thompson told the panel at a hearing on the management of the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Thompson and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Thomas Scully have big plans for the agency, which was known as the Health Care Financing Administration until last week when the Bush administration changed its name to better reflect its activities.

However, they offered little information on how or when a Medicare prescription drug benefit could be administered. The committee hopes to report out a prescription drug bill, which is likely to include Medicare reforms, by the August recess, Finance Chairman Baucus said. "In this committee alone, we've had 15 hearings. The time for talk has passed. It's time to act," Baucus said.

Thompson and Scully told the panel they plan to create a compendium at the beginning of each quarter in which they will list each rule and guidance they expect to publish in that quarter, and then publish them all on the same day every month.

"This way we won't get any more surprises and every provider in the country won't have to hire a lawyer to read the Federal Register everyday," Scully said. Thompson said it would take three years to streamline CMS' bookkeeping systems, and that they would start this fall to centralize the more than 81 different computer systems, many of which cannot communicate with each other.

Thompson established a new system for responding to requests for information and promised to clear away all backlogged correspondence by July 1. He has also signed a record 600 Medicaid and State Childrens' Health Insurance Program waivers so states get more flexibility in implementing these programs.

"I have authorized these changes because people with immediate needs cannot wait for a rumbling bureaucracy to plod along," Thompson said. HHS also plans to launch a major education campaign to better inform Medicare beneficiaries about their healthcare choices, and asked Congress to pass a bill to change the way the agency awards outside contracts.

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