Move or maybe lose

May 11, 2006

The next few days are apt to be frantically busy for the public and private agencies working round the clock to sign up elderly Marylanders for prescription drug coverage through Medicare before Monday's deadline to escape a penalty.

In Baltimore alone, 16 more sign-up sessions are scheduled to reach an estimated 22,000 people who would benefit from the coverage but are not yet enrolled. In the city and throughout the state, phone lines to aging centers are likely to be kept open well after midnight Sunday to answer questions.

Medicare Part D, as it's called, is not the right choice for all those eligible. Retirees who have drug coverage through former employers or as a veteran's benefit are probably better off sticking with that coverage. But no one can make an informed choice without surveying the vast array of options that address varying pharmaceutical needs.

Federal officials have already waived penalties for low-income Medicare beneficiaries who don't make the deadline. After the deadline passes, they should do the same for all enrollees who sign up before the end of this year. A do-over period for those who hastily pick a bad plan - one that doesn't fit their needs - should also be allowed.

But the prospect of extra time doesn't remove the urgency of reaching as many people as soon as possible to get them help with prescription drug costs. Many of those not yet enrolled are believed to belong to the group with the most to gain from the new benefit: retirees not poor enough for Medicaid but lacking any other drug coverage.

There are an estimated 180,000 such folks in Maryland - and millions more nationwide - still missing from enrollment records. The sooner they sign up, the sooner they get help.

The elderly can hardly be blamed for hanging back. The complicated program has been plagued with glitches since it was launched in January. Congress was wildly optimistic to expect an age group resistant to change - and often lacking computer skills to use the quickest enrollment method - to make an informed choice with the months allowed.

But a further complication has been added by an overlay of election-year politics. President Bush and his fellow Republicans want desperately for the drug program to be a success. Many Democrats, smelling blood in the water during the early weeks of mass confusion, have done their best to add to it. Calling the benefit program "a disaster," they surely scared constituents away.

The real disaster would be if a substantial portion of Americans who have much to gain from this new benefit fail to take advantage of it because they don't know any better. Flaws can be fixed later. The priority now is to get everybody who should be enrolled.

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