Less than 14 percent of eligible low-income Medicare (search) beneficiaries have signed up for a drug discount card with $600 in government aid, Medicare chief Mark McClellan said Monday as the Bush administration sought to clear up confusion about the program.

In letters to state officials and other federal assistance programs, the administration said the annual $600 subsidy for the drug card should not be counted against people when they sign up for food stamps or housing programs.

"No one should be disadvantaged under federal programs, including Medicaid (search), because he or shsaid.

He also made public a letter he sent New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in which he said the state was wrong to tell some residents they were ineligible for the drug card assistance because of other governmental help they receive.

McClellan presented an upbeat picture of the drug card program in an appearance before the Senate Aging Committee (search). Just under 4 million people have cards, and 125,000 are signing up each week, he said.

But 2 1/2 months after enrollment began, fewer than 1 million low-income people have cards and subsidies that even critics of the law acknowledge are a good deal.

The Bush administration estimates that 7.4 million people are eligible and predicts that 4.7 million low-income people will get cards before the program ends in December 2005. It will be replaced in 2006 by prescription drug insurance under Medicare, the centerpiece of last year's wide-ranging overhaul of the government health program for older and disabled Americans.

McClellan said the government, working with many civic groups, is stepping up its efforts to recruit poorer Medicare beneficiaries. "I will be doing all I can," he said.

Eight pharmaceutical companies have said they will continue to provide poor people their prescription medicines for little or no money after they have used up their annual $600 allowances.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., sparred with McClellan over the drug card, telling him the program is too complicated for many people. She also complained the insurance program would deny aid to some low-income people because they have wedding rings, burial plots and other modest assets that, together, exceed $6,000.

McClellan said eagerly anticipated regulations that will govern the drug benefit, expected to be issued in coming weeks, would deal with some of Stabenow's complaints.

"I'm not going to be taking away benefits based on seniors keeping their wedding rings," McClellan said. "That is not the way that this program, I think, was intended to operate, and it's not the way it's going to operate."