Tom Scully's shoot-from-the-hip approach has gotten him into trouble once again.
At a recent talk in Lancaster, Pa., to drum up support for the Bush administration's plans to reform Medicare, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reportedly called Medicare a "dumb system" and "an unbelievable disaster," characterizations that drew fire from congressional Democrats.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) calls Scully's remarks "shocking." "In the end, it is his statements-and the administration's Medicare policies-that are flawed, not the Medicare program itself."
The administration is pushing to have private health plans take over part of the Medicare program and administer prescription drug coverage to those seniors who opt into those plans. Those in traditional Medicare will get less generous drug benefits, a plan that Democrats have blasted.
The comments by Scully only further inflamed partisan sentiments. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dashed off a letter to President Bush calling on him to renounce Scully's statement. "Mr. Scully's disdain for Medicare calls into question this administration's commitment to maintaining a program that seniors rely on and trust," the letter said.
Scully says he had been misquoted by the Los Angeles Times, which first reported his remarks. He says he spoke to Daschle, whom he has known for a number of years and who, Scully said, accepted his explanation.
In a letter to Daschle and Pelosi, Scully said Medicare has limited drug benefits, and in that context, "I commented that my agency operates as a `big, dumb price fixer' for drugs now covered under Medicare, that (it) does a poor job of setting reimbursement rates for drugs and biologics in the hospital, outpatient and physician office meetings." He and the administration remain committed to Medicare's mission of providing coverage to America's seniors, he said.
Two months ago, Scully referred to Bob Nielsen, the Gallup Organization's managing partner of healthcare programs, as a "jerk" who ought to be investigated after Nielsen contacted the White House by e-mail calling into question the propriety of the CMS' plan to develop a standard patient-satisfaction survey for hospitals.
HHS' half century
In its long history, the federal department now known as Health and Human Services has had to tackle education, poverty, polio, AIDS and the threat of bioterrorism. Its mission has changed, but its scope has continued to grow, so much so that it is the largest federal agency, with a budget of $502 billion.
At a 50th birthday party last week, officials took stock of the history of the department started as Health, Education and Welfare back in the early Eisenhower administration. In a video presentation, past secretaries spoke of some of the challenges they faced during their terms: Margaret Heckler (1983-1985) spoke of not even knowing what AIDS was when she was first appointed to the post. Louis Sullivan (1989-1993) talked of preparing for a knock-down-drag-out fight with a tobacco company that was about to launch a new product in Philadelphia, only to have the company withdraw the product suddenly. And Donna Shalala (1993-2001) spoke of creating the Children's Health Insurance Program to protect the country's young.
Says current HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson: "We also know the potential for further improvement in our nation's health, welfare and security. That's why we must, and will, continue to lead in the medical sciences, in public health and in strengthening and improving America's health and safety-net programs."
The Polo touch
An unlikely collaboration among fashion designer Ralph Lauren, the internationally renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Harlem's North General Hospital has created a pioneering community-based center for cancer care and prevention in one of New York's most underserved areas.
The Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention opened its doors in Harlem on May 1, bringing together the expertise of a leading cancer center, an urban community hospital and, of course, Mr. Polo himself. Lauren, 63, who battled a benign brain tumor in the late 1980s, is a longtime financial supporter of programs for breast cancer. He contributed a whopping $5 million to build and support the $3.6 million, 2,500-square-foot facility and added his special flourishes to the center's interiors.
The independent center provides prevention and screening services for colon, prostate, cervical and breast cancers, outpatient treatment for a wide range of cancers, and other assorted services such as pain management and palliative care.
The center also boasts a patient navigation program, a concept pioneered by Harold Freeman, who is medical director of the Ralph Lauren Center and former president and CEO of North General. Freeman also is a national authority on the interrelationships between race, poverty and cancer. African-Americans are more likely to develop and die from cancer than any other racial or ethnic group, studies have shown. Under the program, navigators assist patients and family members to ensure they do not get lost in the befuddling healthcare system.