Two for the road

April 16, 2006

Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore isn't often allied with President Bush. For the next few weeks, though, the two are passionately engaged in a shared mission.

As the penalty-free sign-up period for prescription drug coverage through Medicare enters its home stretch, both officials are using all the tools at their command to drum up additional takers before the May 15 deadline. So far, only about half of the retirees eligible - and not automatically enrolled - have taken the bait. Not all the rest stand to gain from the program, especially those who have good drug coverage. But many - including an estimated 33,000 Baltimore residents - will almost certainly lose out if they don't at least consider the option.

The motive for Mr. Bush's appeals to such folks is obvious: The drug benefit program is his. Its success depends on wide participation, and its failure would likely hurt his party in the fall elections.

For Democrats, the political calculation is trickier. Party leaders and sympathetic groups have stepped up their criticism of the drug program, which was enacted with almost exclusively Republican votes.

But Mr. Cummings is taking a broader, more responsible approach. "It's not everything I would like to see, but it is a benefit and people need to take advantage of it. Period," he said.

Unlike Mr. Bush, who delivers his message from the stump, the congressman works almost one-on-one. He's held at least a dozen sessions so far at senior centers and other community facilities to coach constituents through the sign-up process. He sees firsthand the fear and confusion that often result. A major flaw of the program was the faulty assumption that older Americans were eager for an array of choices. Designers of the legislation also underestimated how hard it can be for elderly people to cope with change. Critics have fed into their bewilderment and distrust, Mr. Cummings said.

But there's plenty of time to fix the program's many flaws. As a first step, the May 15 deadline may have to be suspended if sign-ups still lag by then. For now, though, the priority must be making sure everyone who could save money on prescription drugs by participating in the program gets whatever help is needed to enroll.

Bipartisan teamwork is the way to do it.

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