- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

One of President Bush’s signature items — the Medicare prescription-drug program — has turned into a major headache, coming under fire from both sides of the aisle this week for being too confusing and complex for seniors.

Since the program officially began this month, many seniors have had problems obtaining their prescriptions and some states have jumped in to help.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and one of the main crafters of the legislation, acknowledged the glitches yesterday. “It’s unacceptable that some of the poorest, sickest people are having the most trouble, and it’s not what Congress intended,” he said.

Mr. Grassley said it’s too soon to commit to corrective legislation and that officials should focus on quick administrative remedies.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said Tuesday that 3.6 million people have signed up for the program in the past two months and that it is working well for most. Although some seniors are having problems, he said, officials are working “as quickly as possible” to resolve those issues.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy yesterday called the glitches “unfortunate” but said “it’s getting better every day” and that “the program is off to a strong start.”

Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, described the situation differently.

“This is a huge problem. … It’s totally chaos,” said Mr. Jones, who voted against the bill when Republican leaders pushed it through Congress in 2003. “Right now there is a lot of frustration, anger, disappointment and distress.”

Seniors in his district have told him that the Medicare Web site (www.medicare.gov) and toll-free help line (1-800/Medicare) have not been helpful.

Mr. Jones asked House Republican leaders to support a bill sponsored by Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, that would extend the May deadline for seniors to choose a drug plan to the end of the year.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, said 25 states have had to help with the program, and they introduced a broad bill aimed to fix it.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called the drug plan “a fiasco.” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, described “vast confusion.”

The Democrats’ bill, also sponsored by Maine Republican Olympia J. Snowe, would require all of the prescription-drug plans to provide new enrollees with at least 30 days of drugs during their transition to Medicare. It would reimburse states that provided help, require a government employee at each registration site and reduce wait time on the Medicare help line.

Unless the problems are resolved in the next three months, “I believe that it’s going to be a political issue,” Mr. Jones said.

“Make no mistake about it: This is going to be a large issue in the 2006 elections,” Mr. Rockefeller said.

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