By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Faced with a persistent questioner who asked him what could be done to help her elderly mother understand Medicare's new prescription drug plan, President Bush offered a suggestion that at first elicited shocked gasps, and then supportive applause, from an audience of retirees in Silver Spring yesterday.
"Look, I'm not going to tell you your business, but I think it's your responsibility to help your mom," Bush told Wendy Meyeroff. She had asked him to consider extending the May 15 deadline for registering for the new benefit without a penalty, but Bush refused.
"No," he said. "And the reason why is there's got to be a fixed time for people to sign up."
Bush conducted a town hall meeting at Riderwood Village, a retirement community of 2,300 people that straddles the border dividing Montgomery and Prince George's counties, to encourage seniors to learn about the 10-week-old plan, and he promised that it would save many of them money.
He had a similar event in Canandaigua, N.Y., on Tuesday -- part of a stepped-up effort to promote a major Republican initiative that Democrats have branded a disaster. This week, a group led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked the administration to extend the penalty-free enrollment period.
Meyeroff's remarks about the difficulty of helping her ill, 75-year-old mother sign up for the benefit echoed criticism about the program from health care advocates and many seniors. "The thought of doing it is good, but the manner in which it's being carried out is not," said Doris Terry, a retired health education specialist, as she waited for Bush to arrive in a Riderwood hall draped in black and decorated with signs reading "Strengthening Medicare."
"It's too complex," Terry said.
Rather than offer a plan directly from Medicare, the government's Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services contracts with private insurers to provide the coverage. Most seniors have dozens of plans from which to choose. Those who decide after May 15 will pay an extra premium of 1 percent for every month they wait.
In his remarks before a room full of cameras and about 300 retirees, Bush conceded that there has been confusion but defended the profusion of options that the program offers. "With more choices to choose from, you can better design a program that meets your needs," he said.
Maryland Democrats used Bush's presence as an opportunity to attack the plan. "Unfortunately, this prescription drug program is helping America's seniors the way the federal government helped the victims of Hurricane Katrina," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said at a rally in Silver Spring sponsored by an advocacy group.
Several Riderwood audience members said in interviews that they had decided not to register for the benefit because their existing insurance offered better coverage.
Bush said 26 million people had registered for the new plan, but that figure includes 21 million who were already receiving prescription drug coverage. About 43 million people are eligible, and analysts say the government has struggled to register the very poorest seniors, who stand to gain the most.
Meyeroff, who questioned Bush about her mother, said she didn't "totally disagree with him. But that's not a good answer for everyone." A health editor for Erickson Retirement Communities, which owns Riderwood, Meyeroff said she was speaking on her own behalf.
Audience member Alan Mayers, a retired federal worker, said Bush's answer didn't account for seniors who don't have help from a child. "I think that was a little bit heartless, but consistent with the general approach of the administration toward safety nets," he said.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.