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Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Deadline, penalty fuel criticism of drug plan

Seattle Times staff reporter

Federal officials say about two-thirds of the state's eligible residents are receiving coverage in the new Medicare prescription-drug program, but with days left before the enrollment deadline, critics say many of the people who would benefit the most have not signed up.

Groups including Washington Citizen Action and the Washington State Labor Council called Tuesday for the federal government to extend the Monday deadline for the program, known as Part D. They contend that glitches have made many seniors and people with disabilities wary of signing up.

The coalition, calling itself the "Campaign to Fix The Part D Disaster," cited a range of problems with the program, from misinformation to denial of benefits.

Most Medicare beneficiaries who miss the deadline won't be able to sign up until November. In the meantime, the premiums they will pay will increase 1 percent a month until then.

"We think that's ridiculous," David Groves, of the labor council, said at a news conference in Seattle.

In response to mounting criticism about the deadline, President Bush announced Tuesday that the government would make an exception so that Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes below $14,700 and assets worth no more than $11,500 will not have to pay a penalty for signing up after the deadline.

Nonprofit groups including Washington Citizen Action and Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are lobbying for extending the deadline for all beneficiaries.

Information


Medicare Web site: www.

medicare.gov

MedicareRxConnect: www.

maprx.info, run by coalition of nonprofit health organizations, walks people through the process

But Michael Marchand, regional spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency sees no need to do so.

"We believe the program deadline has done a very good job to create a sense of urgency and to get people to use the time to investigate ... what the best plan will be," he said.

The program, which began in January, offers a range of private plans to subsidize the cost of medication.

About 829,000 people in Washington are eligible, and more than 548,000 were enrolled by mid-April, an increase of about 11 percent from the previous month.

But only about 220,000 of those had actively signed up for new prescription-drug coverage. The rest either had existing coverage satisfying requirements of the Part D program or were automatically enrolled through Medicaid.

A recent report by Families USA, a national health-care-advocacy group, said only 24 percent of low-income citizens eligible for extra government help to pay the Part D premiums have enrolled in the program nationwide.

The president is touring the country this week to promote the program. Local agencies have scheduled about a dozen education events. Toll-free help lines have added staff.

In the past several months, the state Insurance Commissioner's Office has fielded double the usual number of calls to its consumer help line, said Tobi Johnson, program director for the help line.

The calls have leveled off, but the agency expects a new surge next month when new Part D participants try to figure out their benefits.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com. Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers and the Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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