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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 11, 2006

Feds should extend drug plan deadline

TO GET HELP

Those eligible for Medicare can contact:

<LI> Sage Plus. Program, 586-7299

<LI> 1-800-MEDICARE

<LI> City Elderly Affairs, 523-4545

<LI> Or on the Web, visit Medicare.gov.

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D-day is almost here for those who plan to enroll for the prescription drug benefit under the new Medicare Part D program. Monday is the deadline to sign up for the plan. The next chance to enroll will be in November but those who postpone the process until then will pay about 6 percent more each month for coverage.

Under fire from Democrats as well as some within his own party because of that policy, President Bush has refused to extend the deadline. That's a mistake: Enrollees need more time.

On Tuesday, however, he waived the penalty fees for seniors who sign up late at the lowest income levels and for those on disability.

That's a no-brainer: Only about one-fourth of the 7.2 million poor beneficiaries have enrolled so far.

While it's a relief that the pressure's off the neediest population, holding tough on the Monday deadline for all eligible beneficiaries seems unnecessarily harsh, considering that the enrollment has progressed in such halting fashion. Millions of eligible seniors and others who need the benefit have been confronted with a dizzying array of plans.

And it's no wonder: The administration made it extremely attractive for pharmaceutical companies to bid. In the enabling legislation Congress passed in 2003, Medicare was barred from negotiating for reduced drug prices. The companies stand to make windfall profits here.

The result: Beneficiaries of the program, as well as the bureaucracy serving them are overwhelmed. It would have been far wiser to phase in such a mammoth new entitlement, giving everyone the time they need to make logical choices.

That said, those who have insufficient or no drug coverage would be smart to sign up without further delay.

Fortunately, agencies are working overtime to cope with the flood of last-minute enrollments.

Meanwhile, the administration and holdouts in Congress should reconsider the morality (not to mention the political wisdom) of penalizing seniors for failing to navigate a mess that government created.