MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
There are just six days left for Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in the new prescription drug plan. Those who miss next Monday's deadline will have to wait until 2007 to get coverage. President Bush was in Florida today, touting the program Republicans helped push into law. But on Capitol Hill, pressure is building to move the deadline back.
NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: In appearances on both the east and west coast of Florida, the president assured seniors still undecided about the plans that the new drug coverage is a good deal. Here's how he put it at Broward County Community College.
GEORGE W: We want people to understand that they're going to save a lot of money when it comes to prescription drugs.
ROVNER: But later in the morning in Sun City, near Tampa, Mr. Bush reiterated the administration's opposition to extending the May 15th signup deadline for most beneficiaries.
BUSH: Deadlines are important. Deadlines help people understand there's finality. People need to get after it, you know? And so the idea is, there's a deadline. Now lowincome seniors, as I mentioned to you, will be able to sign up after May 15th without penalty.
ROVNER: Democratic members of Congress, however, say many of their constituents with higher incomes remain too confused to choose among the dozens of plans, and the deadline should be extended. Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says in her district alone, seniors must choose among 18 different companies offering 43 different plans. And if they don't, they'll have to pay a 1% per month premium penalty for every month they delay.
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: There's far more that needs to be done beyond extending the deadline, but at the very least we need to make sure that seniors don't face what is essentially a Bush prescription drug tax for every day that they don't sign up after Monday. For the rest of their lives.
ROVNER: That call was echoed in the Senate by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Not only should the deadline be extended, she said, but seniors should be given an option to sign up for a drug benefit offered not by private insurers, but by the government itself.
DEBBIE STABENOW: A real Medicare benefit, through Medicare, reasonable copay and premium. You sign up, you go to your local pharmacy and Medicare negotiates group prices. That's what we ought to be doing. And in the meantime, let's stop the countdown to May 15th.
ROVNER: Even though a lot of Senate Democrats talked about Medicare today, the bill actually under consideration on the floor concerns a separate health issue, making coverage more affordable for small businesses. It's sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming.
MIKE ENZI: The bill before us will provide for small businesses to be able to join across state lines to negotiate against the insurance companies with enough power to make a difference. This is something that the small businesses have been asking for for almost 15 years.
ROVNER: Most Democrats, however, oppose Enzi's bill. They say it would override state consumer protections and benefit requirements. Gone, for example, would be rules requiring that health insurance cover expensive diabetes or cancer or mental health care. Democrats want to offer an alternative that would let small businesses sign up for coverage through a pool similar to the one that now covers federal workers. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln is one of its authors.
BLANCHE LINCOLN: If it's good enough for federal employees and it's good enough for members of Congress, I think it should be good enough for the millions of small business employees who are the economic backbone of communities throughout this nation.
ROVNER: But Republicans may prevent Democrats from offering any amendment. That would not only keep the small business bill intact, it would also allow them to avoid having to vote on the Medicare enrollment deadline.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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