WASHINGTON – With an enrollment deadline quickly approaching, the Bush administration said Wednesday that about 37 million Medicare beneficiaries now have prescription drug coverage.
That leaves about 6 million seniors who still have not enrolled in the program's new drug benefit.
The administration is actively courting seniors to get them signed up before Monday's deadline.
President Bush pushed the plan for a second day in Florida. "If you haven't looked at the program, take a look," he urged seniors.
Bush has steadfastly rejected calls for extending the Monday enrollment deadline.
Those who wait until after Monday to enroll will likely have to pay higher monthly premiums when they do sign up, though exceptions will be made for poor senior citizens and the disabled who qualify for extra help.
Overall, about 43 million people are eligible for the benefit. Of those, about 16 million could enroll voluntarily; the others were automatically put into plans or already had prescription drug coverage through other government programs or their former employer.
Administration officials said Wednesday that beneficiaries should gather their Medicare card and their prescriptions and seek help in enrolling. They said an extra 6,000 operators have been hired to help them through the process.
"Do this now," Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said when releasing the Bush administration's latest enrollment numbers. "Don't wait until the last minute."
Meanwhile, Democrats planned a rally for later Wednesday to demand that the enrollment deadline be extended.
Prior to the rally, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., cited a recent Government Accountability Office report that showed about a third of the calls investigators made to Medicare operators resulted in inaccurate and sometimes no information.
"Why would we penalize seniors and the disabled because the government can't get its act together?" Stabenow said.
The Bush administration attacked the independent watchdog's report as outdated and flawed. The calls were made in late January and early February, and officials said that improvements have been made since that time.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the benefit put pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies first. It put seniors last, she said.
"It's confusing and it's complex," Pelosi said. "Seniors deserve more time. Seniors do not deserve to be taxed for the rest of their lives because of this corruption and the complexity and confusion in this bill."
Under the program, Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in a private plan that subsidizes the cost of their prescription drugs. While the costs and the benefits differ depending upon the beneficiary, the administration estimates that the average participant will save about $1,100 a year on his or her medicine.