- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

President Bush yesterday ruled out giving seniors extra time to sign up for Medicare’s prescription-drug program, saying he will stand behind the May 15 deadline.

In a meeting with seniors at a retirement community in Silver Spring, one woman told Mr. Bush that her mother was confused about the options and asked whether he would give applicants more time. The president rejected the idea.

“No. And the reason why is there has got to be a fixed time for people to sign up,” he said. “Rolling back deadlines is not going to help your mom make a good decision.”

He won support for his position when the Senate yesterday rejected a budget amendment that would have moved the deadline to the end of the year.

But minutes later, the Senate approved another amendment that would pressure the secretary of health and human services to negotiate for lower bulk drug prices — something the administration had resisted.

Mr. Bush has acknowledged that the drug program that he signed into law in 2003 has been confusing.

But he told the woman seeking the extension that families must shoulder the burden of helping their elderly relatives.

“Look, I’m not going to tell you your business, but I think it’s your responsibility to help your mom,” Mr. Bush said.

The drug benefit began Jan. 1, and eligible seniors who do not enroll by May 15 will face a surcharge if they sign up later.

Mr. Bush has spent two straight days pushing for seniors to sign up for the program. Twenty-six million have, but Democrats said new estimates show that about 10 million will not sign up because they are too confused or because the program is not a good deal for them.

Democrats also said shortfall and more drugs moving from brand-name to generic status account for the lower government cost estimates that Mr. Bush has been touting.

“If the administration is proud of saving a buck because fewer people are signing up for the drugs they need, they’re clearly on the wrong side of this issue,” said Matthew Beck, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Senate Democrats said their effort to delay the deadline was in response to seniors’ complaints.

“Why be for a program instead of being for the people? They are confused; they need more time; they are bewildered,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat and the failed amendment’s sponsor.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who led opposition to the amendment, said many of those pushing for an extension opposed the original bill.

He accused some of them of actively “encouraging citizens not to enroll” in order to derail the program.

Mr. Grassley offered another amendment, which passed, that gives the health and human services secretary the authority to delay the sign-up deadline.

But even if that amendment were to pass the House, Mr. Bush made clear yesterday that he would not change the deadline.

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