- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

President Bush tried yesterday to corral seniors into signing up for Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit before next month’s cutoff date.

While acknowledging “glitches” in signing up for the new benefit, the biggest new entitlement program in years, Mr. Bush told seniors in Missouri that the 29 million who have already signed up for the program are seeing substantial savings.

“When you cut through all the rhetoric and look at the results, I think people are going to be amazed at what’s available,” he said.

The president is trying to prove to critics on the right and left that the drug program is working.

In that he will be boosted by a new AARP poll to be released today that finds 78 percent of seniors who have signed up for the benefit are happy with it, while only 20 percent said they were not saving money.

AARP officials, who backed the new program during the congressional debate in 2003, said seniors no longer face a choice between food or drugs, but rather between which drug plans to enroll in.

“How bad could that choice be?” said AARP Director of Health Strategy Cheryl Matheis.

The program kicked in on Jan. 1. About 20 million people were automatically signed up because they also receive Medicaid or coverage through a former employer, and another 9 million signed up on their own.

But Medicare officials say 7 million qualified people have not yet signed up. They will face a penalty if they try to sign up after the May 15 deadline.

Democrats are calling that penalty the “privatization tax,” and want Mr. Bush to extend the deadline, since even he acknowledged the problems early on in signing up for the program.

Congress passed the new program, known as Medicare Part D, over the objections of most Democrats, who wanted a more generous benefit, and some conservative Republicans, who said it needs stricter cost-control measures.

Democrats think the Medicare bill is still bad politics for Republicans because it shows how much influence special interests have over Republicans.

“The drug companies have enough representation in Washington without congressional Republicans working for them from inside the halls of Congress,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“With their record on this issue, Republicans can’t be trusted to put the needs and priorities for American families first.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the program “has more than ‘glitches.’ ” He said it is “fundamentally flawed” because it is structured around private companies delivering the benefit.

Top congressional Republicans have accused Democrats of scaring seniors away from singing up for the program. Yesterday several leaders, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, praised the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for encouraging black seniors to sign up.

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