Avoid the Medicare rush

March 20, 2006

As the May 15 deadline for enrolling in Medicare's new prescription drug program looms, the confusion slowing potential applicants stems not just from the bewildering array of options but also from the dilemma of whether they should opt for the voluntary program at all.

Most alarming, says Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, retirees who already have drug coverage - perhaps through a former employer or as a veterans' benefit - often don't know they will lose that coverage if they sign up for drugs through Medicare.

For elderly Americans who have no drug coverage now, the Medicare program almost certainly will save them money, particularly if they take a lot of medications. Such people should be encouraged by family and friends to sign up as soon as possible. Help with the task is available through myriad public and private agencies.

But for this shakedown year, the May 15 enrollment deadline and penalties for those who tarry should be waived. President Bush's assertion that the deadline must remain in order to keep up the pressure for a decision is unproductively harsh. Penalties are useful to discourage people from waiting until they are sick to sign up. There's plenty of time to reinstate those next year.

The drug program got off to a chaotic start in January with the automatic enrollment of the elderly poor. Dr. Sharfstein's staff is still manning a round-the-clock trouble-shooting service for pharmacists who can't find confirmation of a customer's coverage. The city has picked up the tab so far for $9,500 worth of medicine in disputed cases so that patients wouldn't have to go without.

Lawmakers facing re-election contests this fall are far more sensitive than the president to the perils of angering such a potent voter group as Medicare beneficiaries. The Senate last week overwhelmingly approved nonbinding resolutions calling for a delay in the May 15 deadline and authorizing Medicare to bargain for pharmaceutical discounts.

If Mr. Bush doesn't get the message and make those changes, Congress will have to do it for him.

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