Seniors need another six months to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a Democratic congressman who's also a pharmacist said Saturday.

Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas also said the government needs to think long and hard about meaningful Medicare reform.

Berry said people eligible for the prescription benefit are confused by the various offerings, and some are even paying more for medicine now than they were before they joined the program.

"We need to extend the sign-up period by six months to give seniors more time to make sense of this benefit, and we need to eliminate the Bush administration's prescription drug tax," Berry said in the Democrats' weekly radio address.

May 15 is the deadline for enrolling in the new Medicare drug benefit plan, which was enacted by Congress in 2003. People who sign up later probably will have to pay higher premiums.

Seniors complain they're confused by the myriad of private options offered in the prescription drug program. Many poor people ran into problems when they were switched over from their drug benefits within Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, to the Medicare drug benefit.

And many pharmacists are struggling because they haven't been paid for drugs administered by the program, Berry said.

"I will never forget one conversation I had with a pharmacist from DeWitt, Ark., who had given away $60,000 in free medications in just one week because he knew his customers might die if they did not receive their refill that day. Medicare Part D is the FEMA of health care," Berry said.

Medicare could bargain for lower drug prices to save money for the government and for the elderly, he said.

"Every American deserves the best health care we can provide. We do not have to accept a failed benefit and we do not have to tolerate a culture of corruption or leaders who are afraid to admit their mistakes. Democrats have the answer, and under a Democratic Congress, we will give seniors the prescription drug benefit they were promised years ago. Together we can do better," Berry said.