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Extend Medicare deadline, GOP senator says

By TODD ZWILLICH

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- A Republican lawmaker backed Democrats' calls to extend the sign-up deadline for Medicare's prescription drug benefit Tuesday, saying that the more time was needed to help confused seniors enroll.

Sen. Gordon Smith, a moderate Republican from Oregon, is the first GOP senator to publicly support Democrats in at least part of their growing criticism of the drug plan, known as Part D.

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Democrats over the last several weeks have stepped up their criticism of the program's complexity and prices as well as the Bush Administration's implementation of the benefit, which started Jan. 1.

Several have called for an extension of the May 15 enrollment deadline to give seniors more time to negotiate plan choices that, in many states, number more than three dozen. The Bush Administration has said it would oppose any legislative changes to the plan.

But Smith, a member of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, said Wednesday that he would support extending the deadline so that seniors confused by the program don't have to pay a financial penalty for late sign-up.

"We need to take the time necessary to do it right," Smith said. "I think there will be support for that," he added, referring to efforts to extend the deadline.

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It remains to be seen whether Smith's backing will spur other Republicans to support the extension.

Democrats said Tuesday that seniors' confusion over choosing a plan was biggest complaint heard by lawmakers at approximately 130 town hall meetings on the benefit held last week.

They've pledged to push several changes, including establishing a drug benefit option offered through Medicare instead of the private insurance plans now carrying the benefit. Democrats also want to repeat a November 2005 vote in which 52 senators backed giving the federal government the right to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Such negotiations are currently prohibited by the Medicare law.

"The first thing we thing we have to do is put it on the calendar," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant minority leader, said. "We need to get Medicare Part D back on the table," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday that the program has already provided drug coverage to millions of seniors who did not have it before. He accused Democrats of politicizing a "bumpy" implementation that left some low-income beneficiaries without drugs that were supposed to be covered.

"The Democrats' strategy is really operating on a platform of pessimism and a culture of criticism," Frist said.

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Still, Bush Administration officials appear to be growing in their sensitivity to criticism of the program.

A Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services memorandum circulated to insurers earlier this week reportedly sought the companies' advice on how to limit the number of private drug plans. Medicare officials stressed that the memo was only meant to solicit suggestions.

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