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Medicare says 30m seniors are enrolled in new drug plan

WASHINGTON -- Thirty million people have signed up for the new Medicare drug benefit, exceeding the Bush administration's goal with 25 days left before the enrollment deadline, officials said yesterday.

The administration officials rejected demands from some lawmakers that the May 15 deadline be extended to give seniors more time to study the plan alternatives, saying that would only lead to fewer enrollees.

Mike Leavitt, the Health and Human Services secretary, said in a telephone news conference that enrollment already has surpassed projections of 28 million to 30 million enrollees in the first year of the program.

''Seniors are seeing the benefits of the [Medicare] Part D plan," Leavitt said, estimating that some are already saving $500 to $700 a month in drug expenses.

Leavitt said that if enrollment rates continue at the current pace, the government may enroll 90 percent of the estimated 43 million eligible seniors by May 15.

Leavitt, speaking from California, was joined by Mark McClellan, the administration's top Medicare official, in Texas. The two are participating in some 5,500 events scheduled between now and May 15 to discuss the new prescription drug benefit and urge people to sign up.

The two also downplayed incidents, reported in yesterday's USA Today, of insurers warning thousands of seniors that they stand to lose their coverage because of failure to pay premiums.

McClellan indicated that part of the problem is that it usually takes the Social Security Administration two months to begin automatic withdrawals for premium payments.

He said his office is talking to the insurers and is advising seniors receiving letters about nonpayment to contact their insurance plans and the Medicare office.

Leavitt and McClellan said that, in addition to the 30 million Medicare beneficiaries, almost 6 million seniors have prescription drug coverage through other sources, such as the Veterans Benefits Administration, Indian Health Service, or their employers.

They said that of those people still without coverage, many are eligible for the low-income subsidy or are now taking few prescription drugs.

But critics of the program contend that only about 8 million have voluntarily enrolled in the new program, with the remainder automatically moving into the Part D plan from existing plans. They argue, in pushing legislation that would extend the deadline through the end of the year and waive late-enrollment penalties, that the complexity of the new program has discouraged seniors from participating. Seniors must choose among dozens of plans that differ in premiums, drug coverage, and cost-sharing.

McClellan said that a deadline extension would result in an estimated 2 million fewer enrollees. ''Deadlines can be very helpful," he said, ''to get people to make a decision."

On Wednesday 48 senators, led by Senators Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, and Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, signed a letter asking the Senate leadership to allow a vote on legislation to extend the deadline.

They say that seniors who miss the May 15 deadline will have to wait until the start of 2007 to enter the program and pay a penalty that increases each month until coverage begins, resulting in them paying 7 percent more for their lifetimes.

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