Protesters Swarm HHS Chief's Home

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

Several hundred activists from throughout the country demonstrated at the doorstep of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt yesterday to protest the administration's prescription drug plan for senior citizens.

The unannounced visit to Leavitt's home in Arlington County was made by members of the Chicago-based National People's Action, a coalition of neighborhood advocacy groups that is more than 30 years old.

Betty Gazaway, 72, of Cincinnati, who knocked on Leavitt's door, said a woman who identified herself as his wife politely told Gazaway that Leavitt was on a plane and could not be reached by phone. Arlington police showed up minutes later and moved the crowd away from the front door of the house.

"She was real nervous, but she was real nice," Gazaway said of the woman. "All we want is a meeting with Mr. Leavitt and for him to listen to the people."

HHS spokesman Bill Hall said last night that Leavitt is out of town this week and will not meet with the group.

"He has said before that he opposes extending the May 15 deadline" for enrolling in Medicare Part D, which provides prescription drug coverage for people who qualify for Medicare.

"Deadlines are good," Hall said. "They get people to take action."

Armed with megaphones and a giant prescription drug card with Leavitt's name on it, the group, which included senior citizens and children, arrived on yellow school buses and demanded that the HHS chief extend until Dec. 31 the deadline that millions of seniors who lack prescription drug coverage have to select a plan.

"Nobody is ready for this May 15th deadline," Gazaway said. "Seniors haven't signed up for it because they don't understand the program. Mr. Leavitt should give us more time to figure out which way to go."

Charlene Dalton, 58, of Cincinnati said she is "fed up" with the way the federal government is treating the elderly on health-care issues.

"We want him to know that everybody needs decent health care," Dalton said. "We'll be back if we don't get what we want."

An estimated 5 million senior citizens don't have prescription drug coverage, authorities said. If seniors sign up after next week's deadline, they could face penalties. The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 allows Leavitt to extend the deadline without legislative action, the group said.

"All we want is for him to fix the health-care system," said Gloria Bivins, 60, of Akron, Ohio, who said she has diabetes and lost her health insurance when she was laid off from her job after 16 years. "I want to see him fix it so that people like me can be covered."

Two years ago, National People's Action members descended on the Northwest Washington home of Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist, demanding that he talk with them about an educational-opportunities bill for immigrants. Rove declined.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company