WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials say a last-day flurry of registration for the new Medicare drug benefit could lead to 90 percent of elderly Americans having insurance coverage for their medicine.
“We’ve seen a real surge,” said Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “The deadline is making a difference.”
McClellan said about 40,000 to 50,000 people were on the agency’s Web site — www.medicare.gov — at any given moment Monday. Operators at 1-800-Medicare were also experiencing a rush of calls, and most callers were having to wait a few minutes to reach an operator.
The nation’s 43 million Medicare beneficiaries had until midnight Monday to enroll in the new benefit without penalty. About 10 million had done so since Jan. 1. Many more had prescription drug coverage before then, and will continue to have coverage through their former employer, through other government programs or because they were automatically enrolled. That leaves about 6 million people without coverage by administration estimates. Democratic lawmakers say it’s closer to 9 million.
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First lady Laura Bush and top administration officials attended an afternoon registration drive at a local church, while critics of the program met at a pharmacy near the Capitol and urged the administration to extend the midnight deadline and waive a financial penalty for late enrollees.
Mrs. Bush met with volunteers and some last-minute enrollees. She told people with little need for medicine now to still consider signing up for a private insurance plan, warning, “As you age, it’s likely you’ll add medications to your health care.”
Criticism from Democrats
Democratic lawmakers seized on comments from a leading Republican lawmaker, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who said she would introduce legislation to help people who miss the deadline. She said she would try to eliminate the penalty that comes with late enrollment.
For each month of delay, a beneficiary would have to pay an additional 1 percent of the national average premium. So, a person who waits seven months will pay 7 percent of the national average premium — or about an extra $2.50 per month.
“After months of ignoring the pressing needs of seniors, Republicans are running for political cover by claiming they want to waive the penalty they imposed,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Waiving the penalty does not do enough.”
Johnson in turn took a swipe at Democrats, saying she believes the program has been quite successful, and that enrollment might have been closer to 100 percent “if the Democrats had put the welfare of our seniors ahead of their own political ambition.”
While the enrollment deadline was midnight Monday, the agency was leaving some margin for error. For example, McClellan also said that people who could not reach an operator but left a message would be contacted in coming days and given a chance to enroll without penalty.
The administration also notes that, of the 6 million people they believe are still without coverage, about half will qualify for extra help in paying for their medicine. They are exempt from the enrollment deadline and penalty once they qualify for the extra subsidy.
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