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Extend the deadline.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Three years after special interests succeeded in making the Medicare prescription drug benefit one of the costliest and most confusing programs in U.S. history, the Bush administration wants to make sure it's also one of the most punitive.

Unless the administration backs off in the next week, eligible seniors who fail to sign up for Medicare Part D by the May 15 deadline face a 1 percent per month penalty in the cost of their prescription coverage for every month they delay enrollment. The penalty remains in force until - to put it bluntly - they're dead.

That means Lane County seniors who are still confused by the bewildering array of plan choices would, if they waited until, say, next January to sign up, pay a 7 percent surcharge on their prescription drugs for the rest of their lives.

The case for extending the deadline at least six months is overwhelming. More than 180,000 eligible Oregon seniors who have no health insurance for their prescription medicines still haven't enrolled. Nationwide, as many as 12 million eligible Medicare beneficiaries haven't signed up yet.

These people aren't procrastin- ating.

Many of them are just confused by having to sort through dozens of plans, each with different premium costs and lists of covered drugs. If they did as they were told and called Medicare's telephone information service (1-800-Medicare) for help, they stood a one-in-three chance of getting incorrect, incomplete or no information at all, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

A new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that as many as 40 percent of the people who haven't signed up are unaware of the May 15 deadline.

Almost half of that group doesn't realize that they face a financial penalty for waiting to enroll.

The confusion is understandable. It was deliberately built into the program by a Republican-dominated Congress kow-towing to its friends in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

The prescription drug plan was crafted so that private insurance companies, not Medicare, would provide medications. That gave rise to some 2,000 drug plans across the country with different prices, different formularies and different pharmacy networks.

The law also foolishly prohibits Medicare from negotiating with drug companies to secure the best price for its 41 million beneficiaries. This gift to the pharmaceutical industry contributes to the drug plan's astronomical expense, now estimated at $730 billion over the next 10 years.

Lawmakers were so spooked by the bill's ballooning price tag that they built a bizarre cost-saving mechanism into its coverage. Dubbed the "doughnut hole," it's a no-benefit gap that forces seniors to come up with as much as $3,500 in out-of-pocket spending before coverage kicks in again.

For all his insistence that everyone must adhere to a May 15 enrollment deadline in a program they've had only six months to study, it took President Bush three years since signing the drug benefit bill to figure out how unfair one of its most blatant industry-friendly provisions was to perplexed seniors. Just last week he ordered a rule change that prohibits insurance companies from dropping medications from their approved drug lists during periods when consumers are not allowed to change plans.

If for no other reason than political expediency, it ought to be a no-brainer for Bush to extend the enrollment deadline to help Republican chances in the midterm elections.

Otherwise, it won't be long before voters could begin seeing bumper stickers that say: "Medicare Part D - With conservatism this compassionate, who needs cruelty?"
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Seniors need more time to sign up for drug plan
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 8, 2006
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