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Pioneer Editorial: Extend the deadline for Medicare D

As the rush to the May 15 deadline approaches, it's becoming more apparent that seniors are flocking to sign up for the new Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. Administration officials reported last week that another 1.7 million seniors signed up in the past month alone, and that numbers have exceeded their goal even with three weeks left.

But too many concerns remain, and we fear that eligible seniors will be left out when the deadline comes. We wonder how many seniors are rushing to sign up for something they probably know little of in order to avoid the penalty.

That's one of the hardest things to accept -- signing up for Medicare Part D is supposed to be voluntary. But if you don't sign up by the deadline, and you are eligible for the benefit, you will be permanently penalized in higher premium costs for each month you didn't sign up, resulting in paying 7 percent more over your lifetime.

The program has been extremely con-fusing, especially to a population which doesn't embrace well the challenges of change. With more than 500 plans, all with different premiums, co-payments and formularies, many seniors just need more time to digest and act with certainty.

Several organizations have launched efforts to push Congress to extend the Part D deadline through the end of the year and waive the penalty. It's something that should be done, as well as allowing Congress to fix the glitches that plague the current program. Extending the enrollment deadline would result in an additional 1.1 million sign-ups this year, and lower late-enrollment penalties for 10 million seniors and people with disabilities for the rest of their lives, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

As of last week, federal officials reported that two-thirds of the 711,498 Minnesotans on Medicare now have drug coverage through the new benefit or similar retiree plans. But that still leaves about 231,000 with no coverage.

Nationally, more than 30 million Medicare beneficiaries are now receiving prescription drug coverage, exceeding projections of 28 million to 30 million by the May 15 deadline. Still, the program, with many kinks to fix and being new, should allow maximum flexibility in its first year with relaxed enrollment deadlines and no penalties.

In addition, Congress should use the extended time for fixes, such as requiring Medicare to negotiate with drug compan-ies for lower prices, closing the so-called "donut hole" of no coverage between $2,250 and $5,100 in drug costs, narrow-ing the choices for seniors by perhaps al-lowing them to obtain a drug plan directly from Medicare rather than through a my-riad of insurance companies, and prohibit insurance companies from taking medications off their list of approved drugs during any period when someone is not allowed to move to another plan.

Part D is important, but it needs to be made better, and extending the enrollment deadline will help.