Bush Backs Monday Deadline For Seniors

In Florida, President Bush told seniors that deadlines
In Florida, President Bush told seniors that deadlines "help people understand there's finality, and people need to get after it, you know?" (By Chris O'meara -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

President Bush insisted yesterday that the May 15 deadline for picking a Medicare prescription drug plan will stand, even as key Republican lawmakers suggested they may take action retroactively to protect people who miss the Monday cutoff.

Speaking yesterday at a retirement community in Sun City Center, Fla., Bush urged eligible seniors to act quickly. "Deadlines are important," he said. "Deadlines help people understand there's finality, and people need to get after it, you know?"

Republicans on Capitol Hill said that while they hope as many people as possible sign up before the deadline, they are willing to revisit certain coverage terms.

"There are all kinds of resources to help people make a good decision," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose panel has jurisdiction over the drug program. "I don't want to discourage anyone from taking action by the May 15 deadline, so I'll consider what might be done to help those who miss the deadline after next Monday."

Republican aides said Congress could well end up waiving the monthly penalty for seniors who are not currently covered by a comparable private or state-run drug plan. One scenario under consideration would give seniors until the end of the year to choose a plan, before the extra fee takes effect.

With the deadline looming, about 5.7 million of the 42 million seniors and disabled people eligible for the drug program have not signed up. Government officials and outside advocates say the response has been lowest among those who stand to reap the greatest benefit from the program: the one-third of senior citizens who are low-income.

Families USA, an advocacy group, estimates that fewer than one in four low-income senior citizens have enrolled, despite an expensive government outreach to educate people.

"Contrary to promises by the president and congressional leaders, low-income seniors are not receiving help to make their medicines affordable," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "These are the very people who need help the most, yet the administration's promises to them are much more rhetorical than real."

The administration announced yesterday that it would waive the deadline for low-income seniors, who account for about half of the 5.7 million eligible seniors who have yet to enroll in any drug plan.

Julie Goon, director of Medicare outreach for the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters that low-income seniors face a two-step process, having to first apply for a subsidy through Social Security, making the registration process more laborious. Also, the penalty that low-income seniors face would be so minimal, "it would cost more to collect it than it would be to actually have the value of that penalty collected," Goon said.

The penalty equals 1 percent of the national average premium for each month an eligible beneficiary goes without drug insurance. Currently, the average premium nationwide is $32.50 per month, which translates into a penalty of 33 cents a month. Under current law, seniors who decide to sign up in December 2006 -- or seven months late -- would pay $2.31 per month on top of the monthly premium for whatever plan they select. There is no cap on the number of months the penalty may be assessed.

For months, Democrats have sought to push back the enrollment date to allow seniors more time to sort through the different insurance packages being offered. In some regions, that number can top 40 plans, all with different premiums, co-payments, coverage gaps, preferred drugs and so on.

Wary of the potentially grave fiscal and political consequences if the program flops, the administration and Republican lawmakers have worked aggressively since last fall to get seniors covered. GOP House members in particular have held countless registration workshops in conjunction with local elderly service providers and federal Medicare experts.

Over the weekend, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt visited several African American churches as part of "Sign Up Sunday," which featured enrollment assistance after services.

The administration also has enlisted Hispanic organizations to help with outreach. Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will join more than 200 seniors at an event today to call for an extension, and some Republicans also support a delay.

"People are confused," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine).

Fletcher reported from Sun City Center, Fla.

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