April 12, 2006 -- The Bush administration and private advocacy groups are making a push to enroll seniors in Medicare's new prescription drug benefit as a May 15 deadline looms.
Groups said Wednesday that they would host up to 1,000 educational and enrollment events between now and next month's deadline. Those who sign up after the deadline will be forced to pay a financial penalty.
Meanwhile, President Bush has spent the last two days promoting the benefit at events in three states.
Just over 29 million of Medicare's 43 million eligible beneficiaries are now enrolled in Medicare's prescription plan, known as Part D. But the majority of those seniors already had some form of prescription coverage, meaning that most of the remaining eligible seniors must individually sign up for a plan. About 7 million seniors have independently enrolled in a Part D plan since January.
Part D has met with controversy because of limited coverage for seniors and because the benefit is being offered through dozens of private insurance plans in each state. Administration officials have been forced to defend the program through several implementation glitches and complaints from seniors that signing up is too complex.
A new poll published Wednesday by the Washington Post showed that 45% of Americans disapprove of the Part D benefit while 41% approve. But the benefit is much more popular among seniors who have enrolled. Two-thirds of those seniors say they approve of the benefit, and most who've signed up say that enrollment was easy.
Signing Up Seniors
The Bush administration has been pressing hard to promote the program to a large number of seniors who remain unaware of its benefits or reluctant to join. Forty percent of seniors in the Washington Post/ABC News poll said they knew little or nothing about Part D.
"I urge people not to listen to the noise and all the politics -- just get that out of the system -- and see whether or not the prescription drug coverage makes sense," Bush said Tuesday at a Medicare event at the Wesley Acres retirement community in Des Moines, Iowa.
About 1.7 million seniors have qualified for low-income benefits that cover most drug costs, according to the Social Security Administration. An estimated 5.5 million more low-income seniors have not yet been reached.
"We all have more work to do," says Wendy Zenker, head of the Access to Benefits Coalition, a group of 55 private organizations working to ease sign-up for seniors.
Zenker says her group will hold up to 1,000 educational events for seniors and their families in 39 metropolitan areas over the next month. Event locations are listed on the web site www.mymedicarematters.org. Another group headed by business organizations is promoting local enrollment sessions through its site, www.medicaretoday.org.
"What we want to do is make sure people know between now and May 15 that there is local help," Zenker tells WebMD.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans have called for a deadline extension in order to give seniors more time to make enrollment decisions. Such a move would require an act of Congress, though Bush has said he'd resist an extension.
Rep. Jan Schakowski, D-Ill., branded as "scandalous" poll results showing that 63% of Part D beneficiaries said the program was saving them money. "If the plan were a success 100% of those beneficiaries would be realizing the savings," she told reporters.