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President presses Medicare benefit

Tells seniors help available to ease drug plan sign-up

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With just over a month left for seniors to sign up for the new Medicare drug benefit, President Bush encouraged seniors yesterday to look at the benefits available and said their children have a duty to help them do so.

Bush said that there were some glitches in the early stages of the enrollment process, but that his administration had worked them out. He said the process can be confusing with dozens of plans for seniors to choose from, but there are many people ready to help.

''I'm here to cut through all the politics and cut through all the rhetoric and help people understand what's available," said Bush, making an appearance at a new performing arts center in Missouri's capital city to promote the benefit. ''No better place to come than the state of Missouri -- kind of the show-me state," he quipped.

Many lawmakers want to extend the May 15 enrollment deadline, because so many millions of people without coverage have yet to sign up for the benefit that is provided by private companies.

Bush is opposed to extending the deadline. Mark McClellan, the president's chief Medicare official, who traveled here with him, said more than 29 million seniors have enrolled, and 400,000 more are enrolling each week. Within that group are more than 20 million people who were automatically enrolled because of their participation in other government programs such as Medicaid, or because they get drug coverage through their former employer.

About 43 million older people and the disabled are eligible for the benefit.

More than 1,000 enrollment seminars are being held across the country each week to educate seniors about their options, he said. Bush visited one such seminar before his town hall meeting that was held at Heisinger Bluffs, a Lutheran-run home for 200 seniors. Bush watched while the residents sat in front of computers getting help to figure out which plan to sign up for.

''Are you going to the same hairdresser as my mother?" the president teased Elsa Horak, a white-haired woman at one of the terminals.

Another woman was getting help narrowing down her options. There were 42 plans available to her, then a staff member entered the drugs she was taking to narrow down her choices. ''Sometimes the number of programs confuses people," Bush said.

''If you have a person say, 'Here's some options for you to choose from,' it means you can design a program to meet your healthcare needs," Bush said later at the town hall.

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