Rep. Issa threatens to subpoena HHS over Medicare bonuses

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Thursday that he's willing to subpoena documents from the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), alleging a conspiracy to hide the impact of President Obama's healthcare law.

Issa, as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is investigating an $8 billion demonstration project in which Medicare pays bonuses to certain private Medicare Advantage plans based on quality.

The congressman has suggested that HHS is using the bonus payments to mask the healthcare law's cuts to Medicare Advantage plans ahead of the election.

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Issa and Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) requested documents about the bonus payments in August. They said Thursday that they haven't gotten a response and said they "will consider the use of compulsory process" if HHS doesn't turn over the documents by Oct. 5.

A committee spokeswoman confirmed that a "compulsory process" includes subpoenas.

Obama's healthcare law made several cuts in government payments to privately run Medicare Advantage plans, including a new system for giving bonus payments to high-quality plans.

But in November 2010, HHS announced that it would not immediately implement the health law's changes, and would instead test a different system — the demonstration program Issa is investigating. The demonstration program will mean bigger payments, delivered earlier, to more plans, according to the Government Accountability Office.

GAO recommended that HHS cancel the demonstration, which it estimates will cost $8.3 billion over 10 years. Issa has repeatedly emphasized GAO's recommendation, saying it's the first time the auditing and investigative office has taken such a step.

Issa has suggested that HHS is using the added payments under the demonstration program to ensure that seniors won't see fewer Medicare Advantage options before the election.

"The Committee is concerned that the only plausible explanation is that, realizing the political danger of the law's large cuts to Medicare Advantage during an election year, you decided to utilize a loophole in the Social Security Act to implement a temporary bandage that would cover up [the healthcare law's] larger cuts to the 13 million seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage," he and Lankford said in their August letter to HHS.