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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging is taking place in Washington this week, and the future of Medicare is high on its agenda. Medicare was on President Bush's agenda today, too, but he's skipping the White House conference, the first president not to speak to delegates in the event's half-century history. We have two reports this evening, the first from NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

While the Conference on Aging delegates were meeting in a hotel uptown, the White House motorcade set out for suburban Virginia and Greenspring Village, a high-end, gated retirement community. Once there, President Bush met with residents and staff to tout the new Medicare drug benefit he helped shepherd into law.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's a good deal for our seniors, and so one of the reasons we have come today is to encourage people to see what is available in the new law.

ROVNER: The president acknowledged that many seniors are confused by the plethora of private drug plans available. Republicans designed it that way to get the private sector more involved in Medicare. The theory is that competition can bring lower prices. But even with all the choices, Mr. Bush said people like Greenspring resident Eloise Cartwright are already being helped.

Pres. BUSH: Under the new Medicare plan, she's able to choose a program that will substantially reduce the cost of her prescription drugs. Low-income seniors will get substantial help. People will be able to match a program to their specific needs.

ROVNER: Of course, the seniors who met with the President Bush at the closed meeting were handpicked by the White House team. Members of Congress don't have that luxury. And lawmakers say from their point of view, the drug benefits rollout isn't going well at all.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): This Medicare Part D program is a debacle.

ROVNER: That's Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. He says he's been flooded with complaints from seniors who, in his state, have more than 40 separate drug plans to choose from.

Sen. HARKIN: What I'm hearing is, `This is way too confusing. This is not what we bargained for. This is not what we wanted.' And plus, they're finding out that the savings on the drugs are not that big a deal.

ROVNER: White House officials are stressing that help is widely available, both on the Internet and, for non-computer users, at Medicare's 1 (800) number. But New York Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey says even that help has been hard for her constituents to get.

Representative NITA LOWEY (Democrat, New York): They call the hot lines, they call Medicare, they're put on hold. And they tell me after staying on hold for 15, 20 minutes or more, they finally hang up.

ROVNER: And it's not just Democrats reporting problems. Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson is a Missouri Republican who stopped to talk as she boarded a plane back to Washington.

Representative JO ANN EMERSON (Republican, Missouri): I'm hearing lots of confusion. I'm hearing that people really don't know which way to go, whether they should sign up for it or not.

ROVNER: Emerson says her constituents are also worried about the May 15th enrollment deadline, after which premiums will rise by 1 percent per month for every month's delay.

Rep. EMERSON: I think starting to penalize seniors after May 15th is problematic. I think that you're going to have to give them a longer time to sign up and get the information that they need.

ROVNER: In fact, there appears to be growing bipartisan support in Congress for extending the deadline and for allowing seniors to switch plans more than once after January 1st. Several bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate. Last night, Democrats on a House-Senate conference committee offered an amendment to the Health and Human Services spending bill that would have pushed the deadline back six months. It failed on a 7-7 tie, but no member spoke against it. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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