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1 million choose Medicare drug benefit

WASHINGTON -- About 10 percent of the senior citizens and disabled people with little or no prescription drug coverage have signed up for Medicare's prescription drug program, the government reported yesterday.

Medicare opened enrollment for the new benefit on Nov. 15. An additional 17 million people who already had some form of drug benefit were enrolled automatically by the government, or they will receive newly subsidized benefits through their existing private retiree healthcare plan.

Other Medicare recipients had to enroll to participate. Of the 10 million to 12 million with little or no coverage, 1 million have signed up. The enrollment period to obtain coverage in 2006 lasts until May 15.

Critics said the small percentage who volunteered for the coverage indicates that the Medicare drug benefit program, which relies on scores of private providers that contract with the federal government, is too complicated and unworkable. ''We see it as a searing indictment of this convoluted drug program," said Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a consumer group. ''People are faced with a bewildering array of for-profit insurance plans. These plans are seen as so complex and unreliable that many people in great need of help are staying on the sidelines."

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told reporters that the government expects to sign up between 28 million and 30 million people for the benefit during its first year.

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