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Medicare Chief Wants Deadline to Be Kept

March 7, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation’s chief Medicare official said Tuesday he opposes ``at this point″ calls to extend the May 15 deadline for enrolling in the new prescription drug benefit without a penalty.

``Many people tend to wait until closer to the deadline to make a decision,″ Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

``It’s like most people don’t do their Christmas shopping in September,″

He said he also opposed, for now, other legislation to revise the program, which began Jan. 1. The bills include ones that would fully reimburse the states for out-of-pocket costs during the program’s early months and allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

``Right now we’re focused on doing everything we can administratively to solve problems,″ he said. ``If you look at what’s in the bills, it’s been things like making sure states got reimbursed. We’ve come up with an administrative approach to do that faster and more effectively than what legislation would have done.″

Lawmakers from both parties, particularly Democrats, have called for extending the deadline, citing reports of problems plaguing the program in its early weeks. Seniors who miss the May 15 deadline generally will face a penalty of 1 percent of the premium for each month they delay. The program is voluntary.

McClellan, the administration’s point man on the new program, stopped short of a firm rejection of a deadline extension. Asked it he favored one, he said, ``Not at this point.″

As of mid-February, 5.5 million people had voluntarily enrolled in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. An additional 20 million people were automatically enrolled because they also qualify for Medicaid and other government programs or are covered through their employers.

In the hourlong interview, McClellan said the number of plans available to seniors will be narrowed, as the industry examines their enrollment figures and preferences.

No one, he said, should have to look in detail at 40 plans.

``Clearly seniors want simplicity and predictability,″ he said.

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On the Net:

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: http://www.cms.hhs.gov/

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