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Procrastinators get dose of Part D.

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

Edward Sprague of Eugene delayed until he could wait no longer.

Sprague and countless other retirees on Monday scrambled to sign up for Medicare's new prescription drug benefit before the midnight deadline.

With nearly 50 plans to choose from, the Medicare Part D enrollment options seemed "overwhelming" to the retired baker.

"It didn't sound like something I even wanted to get involved in, so I kind of procrastinated about it," Sprague said. "Then this deadline thing came up."

Under the drug plan, Medicare will cover the bulk of prescription medicine costs and consumers will pay an average of about $25 a month. "It's quite a bit cheaper for me," Sprague said.

Nationwide, tens of thousands of seniors kept Medicare's operators busy Monday during the final hours of enrollment for the new drug benefit.

First lady Laura Bush and top administration officials attended an afternoon registration drive at a Washington, D.C., 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, the Associated Press reported.

Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the AP that about 40,000 to 50,000 people were on the agency's Web site - www.medicare.gov - at any given moment Monday. 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.

In Eugene, Sprague just beat the deadline, joining about 400,000 Oregonians who as of a week ago had signed up for Medicare Part D coverage since last year.

Altogether, 546,754 Oregonians are eligible for the expanded coverage, said Twila Jacobsen, United Way's retired and senior volunteer program director.

People who missed the Monday deadline now must wait until November to enroll, and pay higher premiums than the people who already have signed up.

There are exceptions to that: low-income Americans still can enroll without a penalty, Jacobsen said.

She urged people with questions about their eligibility to contact a Social Security office to figure out if they qualify for the low-income exception.

Meanwhile, political pressure is mounting on members of Congress to eliminate the penalty.

Democratic lawmakers seized on comments from a leading Republican lawmaker, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who said she would introduce legislation to help people who miss the deadline. Johnson 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 1 percent of the national average premium. So, a person who waits seven months will pay 7 percent of the national average premium - or about an extra $2.50 a month.

``Mrs. Johnson always talks about listening to her constituents. But if she thinks waiving the penalty is all they're asking for, she needs to have her hearing checked,'' said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif.

``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,'' said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. ``Waiving the penalty does not do enough.''

Johnson in turn took a swipe at Democrats, saying she believes the program has been quite successful, and enrollment might have been closer to 100 percent ``if the Democrats had put the welfare of our seniors ahead of their own political ambition.''

Sprague, who retired from Williams' Bakery in Eugene because of a disability, enrolled in the Medicare Part D program after spending an hour with Carolee Smith, a Medicare specialist at United Way of Lane County in Springfield.

Smith had back-to-back appointments with retirees, most of them referrals from senior citizen centers. "I've been booked solid for the last week and a half," Smith said.

While the enrollment deadline is midnight, the federal government was leaving some margin for error. For example, operators would be taking calls until midnight on the West Coast, which would be 3 a.m. on the East Coast. McClellan told the AP that people who could not reach an operator but left a message would be contacted in coming days and given a chance to enroll.

Smith said that if people stay on hold for more than 30 minutes on the Medicare line tonight but either hang up or are disconnected, they can call back on Tuesday and Medicare processors may still allow them to enroll without penalty.

CAPTION(S):

Volunteer Carolee Smith (right) says goodbye to Martha Davis, 86, after signing her up for benefits Monday at United Way in Springfield.
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Title Annotation:Government; Local seniors join tens of thousands nationwide signing up for Medicare prescription drug benefits
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 16, 2006
Words:776
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