- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Top Republican and Democratic senators yesterday backed a bill that would lift the penalty fee facing seniors who missed Monday’s deadline to sign up for the new Medicare drug benefit, and the Senate is expected to approve the bill this week.

“We can help more seniors to sign up by waiving the enrollment penalty,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who joined Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the panel’s top Democrat, to lead the effort.

Mr. Grassley said he hasn’t spoken to the White House about his bill, but he is working with Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who plans to introduce a similar bill this week.

When asked about Mr. Grassley’s effort, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, “We’ll take a good careful look at that.”

A Senate Republican leadership aide said the White House and the House were warned that the Senate would probably waive the penalty after Monday’s sign-up deadline passed.

President Bush and most Republicans held firm to Monday’s deadline to sign up for the new Medicare prescription-drug program, despite repeated protests from Democrats and outside groups. With a few exceptions, seniors who missed the boat must wait until November to sign up and will have to pay an extra 1 percent of their premiums for each month they aren’t enrolled.

Most Republicans stuck with Mr. Bush on the deadline, but now many are saying it’s only fair to waive the fee. The bill by Mr. Grassley and Mr. Baucus would waive the penalty and provide $18 million for efforts to help more seniors sign up.

“If you missed the boat on May 15, there’s some grace,” Mr. Baucus said.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican.

Most Democrats — who’ve called the penalty an unfair “tax” on seniors — complained that waiving it is hardly enough.

“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. Waiving the penalty does not do enough,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

A memo by the Senate’s Democratic Policy Committee said the party wants the enrollment period to be extended and wants seniors who have signed up to be able to switch their drug coverage plans this year.

Senate aides estimate that the waiver will cost $1.7 billion over five years but would be paid for by taking money from another fund in the new Medicare drug program.

Other House Republicans support waiving the fee, but House leaders are moving more slowly on the issue. House Republican leadership aides said the House would take a careful look at final enrollment numbers before making any decisions.

Preliminary estimates from the administration indicate that more than 1 million people have signed up in the past week, meaning 90 percent of Medicare beneficiaries now have drug coverage, officials said yesterday.

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