Bush won't extend drug plan sign-up


SILVER SPRING -- President Bush, working yesterday to allay public anxiety about the new Medicare drug benefit, ruled out extending the May 15 deadline for seniors to sign up and said "now is the time" to enroll.

Bush acknowledged the confusion sown by the program in its early months and told Maryland seniors he is working to address their doubts.

"People got on the computers and saw a lot of different options, and said, `Whoa, this may be a little more than I bargained for,'" Bush said at Riderwood Village, a gated retirement community in the Washington suburbs.

He added that community groups, retirement facilities and religious organizations are working to help seniors understand their options.

Questioned about giving people more time to navigate what many have reported is a daunting enrollment process, Bush said extending the deadline is out of the question.

"There's got to be a fixed time for people to sign up," Bush said, fielding a question from a woman who said her 75-year-old mother in New Jersey was having trouble signing up for drug coverage. "We want people to realize ... now is the time."

His comments came as the Senate approved a nonbinding amendment to a budget measure that would allow the administration to delay the deadline until the end of this year and eliminate the steep penalty participants would face if they enrolled later.

The vote was evidence of a growing fear on Capitol Hill - including among Republicans - that voter concerns about the prescription benefit could hurt lawmakers in this year's elections.

Bush visited Riderwood, which houses about 2,200 seniors, as part of a push to burnish the Medicare drug benefit's image, amid complaints that it is too overwhelming for many to understand. Computer glitches have hampered the benefit's implementation.

The president called himself the "educator-in-chief" but sounded more like a salesman as he peered into TV cameras to urge seniors to check out the new benefit, promising them they would like what they saw.

"If people pay attention to this program and take a look at it, you'll find that there are some significant cost savings for you," Bush said.

Employees of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the program, were on hand at the gathering, clustered around computers to help seniors evaluate their options and sign up.

Bush tried to push the program without seeming to pressure seniors to join. Responding to one Riderwood resident who said her health plan provides far cheaper coverage than the Medicare benefit could offer, Bush said, "Look, if you're happy with where you are - and it sounds like you're pretty happy about it - don't change."

"I'm not going to," the woman shot back, to laughter from the audience.

Democrats who opposed the plan and are pushing to overhaul it said Americans had seen Bush's program and rejected it.

Baltimore Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat who is running for the Senate, called it "a raw deal for the people of this country."

Seniors "don't like what they see," Cardin told a sparsely attended rally with union activists at the National Labor College, organized by Americans United, a coalition of liberal groups that fought proposed changes to Social Security last year.

"This piece of legislation was not written with senior citizens in mind," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who also attended. "It was written to help the drug industry."

Robert Cohen of Silver Spring said he went to the rally because of his concerns about the drug benefit. The 78-year-old retired social worker is enrolled in a prescription plan through Medicare, something he didn't have before.

But, he said, "I did better when I could order drugs from Canada," and since his wife was forced to give up her private drug coverage, Cohen said he wasn't sure yet whether the new benefit would save the couple any money.

Bush's latest effort to sell the program came as lawmakers signaled they are willing to tinker with it to respond to constituent concerns. A bid by Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices cleared a key hurdle in the Senate yesterday.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, a Democrat who supports the move, called Bush's program "a mess" that "makes it harder for seniors."

julie.davis@baltsun.com gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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