April 28, 2006 -- Congress is unlikely to approve extending the looming deadline for enrollment in's Part D prescription drug plan, congressional backers of the extension acknowledge.
Part D enrollment is set to close May 15, after which seniors who sign up will have to pay a 1% per month financial penalty on their premiums. Critics have made extending the deadline a key issue in response to frustration from seniors left baffled by dozens of plan choices in each state.
But Senate Republicans and Democrats supporting the extension now say they lack the votes and the time to pass it before May 15. The crowded Senate schedule is packed with debates on immigration, war spending, and taxes in the next two weeks.
"We'll try but I don't think we'll be able to get this done," North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan tells WebMD. "They'll probably be able to thwart our attempts to extend it," says Dorgan, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
Counting the Votes
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the chief sponsor of a bill extending the deadline until the end of the year, acknowledged Thursday that he lacked sufficient support in the Senate. "We have gotten as high as 53 votes, but under Senate procedure you have to have 60. As of now, we don't," he says.
More than 30 million of Medicare's 43 million beneficiaries are enrolled in Part D, which began paying benefits in January. Opinion polls show that about 75% of participating seniors approve of the program.
Most of those now enrolled were signed up automatically, leading to fears that the remaining millions won't voluntarily enroll in the next two weeks.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have resisted extending the deadline under strong urging from the White House. Pres. Bush has repeatedly said he opposes an extension.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, says the cutoff date would motivate remaining seniors to sign up. "If you don't have a deadline, people don't move," she tells WebMD.
Tide Has Turned?
Many lawmakers faced strong reactions from constituents in the first two to three months of Part D's rollout, as seniors complained of complicated sign-up procedures and difficulties obtaining prescriptions at pharmacies.
But that pressure now seems to have waned, says Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith. Smith, who supports extending the May 15 deadline, says for months Part D was "topic A" in his meetings with constituents. But he tells WebMD that in at least 10 recent town hall meetings, "It was mentioned once."
Smith says his colleagues are feeling less pressure from angry seniors and hearing more from satisfied ones. "This is turning from a political negative rapidly to a political positive," Smith tells WebMD. "My palpable sense is the tide has turned."