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Deadline for Medicare drug plan looms

Leavitt urges remaining 5 million eligible Americans to sign up


Mike Leavitt
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Operators are standing by to help the estimated 5 million eligible Americans who have not enrolled in Medicare's prescription drug benefit program, the Health and Human Services secretary said Sunday.

The process can be completed in a phone call to Medicare's customer service line, with information from the Medicare card and pill bottles, secretary Mike Leavitt told CNN.

Seniors who sign up after the midnight Monday deadline face a 1 percent penalty per month unless they are deemed eligible for a low-income benefit program.

President Bush has rejected calls to extend the deadline, and Leavitt said he supported that decision.

"They needed that deadline or they wouldn't sign up," Leavitt said. "In fact, the actuary for the government told us if we didn't have a deadline, 1.6 million people fewer would actually sign up."

About 37 million of the estimated 42 million seniors eligible for the drug benefit have already signed up, Leavitt said.

He said another enrollment period will open in November, but Monday night represents the last time the lowest rate will be available.

Leavitt said imposing a penalty for those who miss the signup deadline is necessary. People cannot be allowed to wait to buy insurance only when they are about to use the benefit, he said.

"It is unfair for people who signed up during the period to pay higher premiums because [other] people put it off," Leavitt said.

The drug benefit, known as Medicare Part D, subsidizes private health-care plans and requires seniors to choose among a variety of competing company plans. It has been fraught with controversy from the beginning, amid disputes over the program's price and questions about its effectiveness.

Leavitt said there are low-cost plans for those who think they are so healthy they don't need a drug plan. All states have a plan for less than $20 per month and most have one for less than $10.

Leavitt said the enrollment process need take no more than a half hour, and urged unenrolled seniors to call the Medicare customer service line at (800) MEDICARE -- or (800) 633-4227 -- with their Medicare card and pill bottles in hand.

When CNN called the line Sunday afternoon, a representative came to the line just a few seconds after an automated system asked initial questions.

A Government Accountability Office report last week found Medicare's customer service representatives gave wrong or incomplete answers to callers about a third of the time, but Medicare Director Mark McClellan told a congressional hearing last week that those problems have been addressed.

Medicare Part D got off to a rocky start in January, when at least 26 states had to step in to reimburse pharmacists for prescriptions for low-income recipients.

Leavitt said that half of those not yet enrolled are "low-income eligible... and they are hard people often to find, so we're continuing to work at that."

Democrats have called on Bush to drop his insistence on Monday's signup deadline and to modify the bill to allow the government to negotiate with drug companies for better prices.

Florida state Sen. Ron Klein delivered the Democratic Party's national radio address on Saturday, blasting the drug plan as "wrong for our nation's seniors."

"Millions are confused and are having a tough time navigating the options and details buried in the fine print of this program," the congressional candidate said.

"The new prescription drug law is little more than a legislative payoff to the pharmaceutical industry and HMOs," he said.

In Florida last week to promote the plan, Bush called it "an exciting opportunity for people to improve their lives."

He acknowledged the number of choices available had created confusion for some seniors, but said the choices would promote competition and help control costs.

"I strongly believe that giving seniors choices is important to a good health care system," Bush said.

"It's very important for people to understand that there are significant savings for you involved in this plan," he said.

The plan was estimated to cost $400 billion over 10 years when it was passed by Congress in 2003, but subsequent estimates have been considerably higher.

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