The once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging is meeting in Washington this week, with the future of Medicare high on its agenda. Medicare was on President Bush's agenda Tuesday, too. But he skipped the White House conference -- making him the first president not to speak to delegates in the event's half-century history.
While the conference on aging delegates was meeting in a hotel uptown, the White House motorcade set out in the opposite direction, to Greenspring Village, a high-end gated retirement community in suburban Virginia.
Once there, President Bush met with residents and staff to tout the new Medicare drug benefit he helped shepherd into law. "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."
The president acknowledged that many seniors are confused by the plethora of private drug plans.
Republicans designed the Medicare prescription that way on purpose -- to get the private sector more involved in Medicare. The theory is that competition between private plans can bring lower prices.
Among those about to benefit from that competition, said President Bush, is Greenspring Village resident Eloise Cartwright.
"Under the new Medicare program she's able to choose a program that will substantially reduce the cost of her prescription drugs," the president said. "People will be able to match a program to their specific needs."
Cartwright later told NPR that she had narrowed her selection to two plans and that she was sure that she would save money.
The White House team handpicked the seniors who met with President Bush at the closed meeting.
But members of Congress, returning from the Thanksgiving break this week, haven't had the luxury of a controlled audience while they've been at home. They say that from their point of view, the drug benefit's rollout isn't going well at all.
"This Medicare Part D program is a debacle," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). He said he's been flooded with complaints from seniors, who in his state have more than 40 separate drug plans to choose from. "What I'm hearing is this is way too confusing. This is not what we bargained for. Plus, they're finding out that the savings on the drugs are not that big a deal," he said.
White House officials stress that help is widely available -- both on the Internet at www.medicare.gov and, for non-computer users, at the toll-free 1-800-MEDICARE hotline.
But Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) says even that help has been hard for her constituents to get.
"They call the hotline, they call Medicare. They're put on hold," she told NPR. "And they tell me after staying on hold for 15, 20 minutes, or more, they finally hang up," said Lowey. She added that her own staff members trying to help seniors have been subject to long wait times as well.
And it's not just Democrats reporting problems. Rep. JoAnn Emerson (R-Mo.) said she's also getting complaints from constituents. "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," she said.
Emerson said her constituents are also worried about the May 15 enrollment deadline, after which premiums will rise by 1 percent per month for every month's delay. "I think starting to penalize seniors after May 15 is problematic," she said. "I think you're going to have to give them a longer time to sign up and get the information that they need."
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 1.
Several bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate. Monday 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 vote -- but no member spoke against it.