- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Tens of thousands of procrastinating senior citizens kept Medicare’s operators busy yesterday during the final hours of enrollment for the government’s new drug benefit.

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.

At Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, Mrs. Bush met 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.”

Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said 40,000 to 50,000 people were on the agency’s Web site (www.medicare.gov) at any given moment yesterday. Operators at 1-800/Medicare also were experiencing a rush of calls, and most callers were having to wait a few minutes to reach an operator.

“We’ve seen a real surge,” Mr. McClellan said. “The deadline is making a difference.”

Democratic lawmakers seized on comments from a leading Republican lawmaker, Rep. Nancy L. 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 later this year.

For each month of delay, a beneficiary would have to pay an additional percentage of the national average premium. For instance, a person who waits seven months will pay 7 percent of the national average premium, or about an extra $2.50 per month.

Although the enrollment deadline was midnight, the agency was leaving some margin for error. For example, operators took calls until midnight on the West Coast and until 3 a.m. on the East Coast.

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