- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

SUN CITY CENTER, Fla. — President Bush yesterday adamantly opposed extending the Monday deadline for senior citizens to sign up for a new Medicare prescription-drug program, saying “there is finality, and people have to get after it.”

“We want everybody to sign up; we want people to understand that there are really good benefits for seniors,” the president said at a retirement center in this golf enclave 30 miles south of Tampa, where many residents drove to the event in golf carts.

“The program is saving seniors a lot of money. And as a result of people competing for your business, it’s saving the taxpayers money,” he said.

Democrats in Congress have been pressing for either an extension of next week’s deadline to the end of the year or for the federal government to waive penalties for seniors who miss it.

“President Bush should explain to seniors why he won’t move the deadline to allow more seniors access to the program,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Stacie Paxton said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, are expected to call for a deadline extension at an event today.

The new prescription-drug program is estimated to cost $678 billion over 10 years, but the Congressional Budget Office said Monday that extending the deadline would cost the government $100 million this year — and $3.4 billion over 10 years.

While the sign-up process got off to a shaky start in January, more than 30 million elderly or disabled Americans have joined.

The CBO estimates that 10 million eligible Medicare beneficiaries will fail to join the program this year and will pay penalties to enroll. It said 1 million more would opt for the program if the deadline is extended to Dec. 31.

During a question-and-answer period after the president’s brief speech, two women voiced concern about people being shut out in the rush to enroll in the new program.

There are reports that enrollment phone lines are jammed and the Web site — medicare.org — is clogged.

“I’ll check with the local people to make sure that — see what the strategy is in dealing with that,” Mr. Bush said.

The federal government, which is conducting more than 1,000 events nationwide this week as part of a final push to get people enrolled in the program, has added 6,000 operators and quadrupled its computer capacity for enrollment.

Those who fail to enroll by Monday will have to pay an extra 1 percent per month on their premiums based on how many months they delayed, and the increased cost will be added to all future premiums.

Mr. Bush’s first stop yesterday was Tampa, where he greeted Gov. Jeb Bush, playfully fixing his younger brother’s tie. He was also greeted at the stairs of Air Force One by Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, who is running for a Senate seat.

Mrs. Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who played a role in the 2000 Florida recount, chatted animatedly with the president and showed no animosity toward the Florida governor, who said Monday that he does not think she can win.

The governor has asked Florida House Speaker Allan Bense to enter the race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

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