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Bush rejects extending deadline for Medicare drug plan sign up

WASHINGTON -- President Bush rejected extending the deadline to sign up for a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, as some lawmakers want, even though the program has caused confusion among enrollees.

The president spoke a few hours before the Senate approved a measure, sponsored by Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, to give the Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt authority to extend the May 15 deadline for older Americans to sign up for government drug benefits without a financial penalty.

''There's got to be fixed time for people to sign up," Bush said yesterday in response to a question from the daughter of a Medicare beneficiary, after a speech in Silver Spring, Md. ''Rolling back good deadlines is not going to help your mom make a good decision."

People 65 and older who sign up after May 15 will face higher premiums to get coverage for prescription drugs under the program, which took effect Jan. 1. Critics of the drug benefit argue that it is complex and senior citizens need more time to evaluate which plan is best for them.

In a letter to Bush sent yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and eight other House Democrats asked the administration to extend the deadline by six months to get more people into the program. The House hasn't voted on the issue. The Senate yesterday rejected a Democratic proposal to give senior citizens until the end of the year to sign up.

In the speech at a suburban Washington retirement home, Bush acknowledged that ''people got on their computers and saw a lot of different options and said, 'Whoa, this may be a little more than I bargained for.' " The administration set a goal of signing up 30 million people before May 15. After that, premiums will rise 1 percent every month for enrollees.

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