Shays and Johnson attacked for stances on Medicare Part D

A pair of Connecticut Republicans facing tough reelection battles are drawing heat from their challengers for last-minute announcements that they would support a bill to get rid of penalties for senior citizens signing up late for the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

After opposing a postponement of the Part D deadline in the days before the sign-up period expired at midnight Tuesday, Reps. Nancy Johnson and Christopher Shays both decided to support legislation to eliminate the penalties.

Johnson’s Democratic challenger, Chris Murphy, said Johnson, an author of the Part D legislation and chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, was in effect admitting that her program is flawed. He said eliminating the penalties would be a small step toward making things right.

On the House floor last week, Johnson cited the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which said 1.6 million people would wait to enroll if the deadline were moved.

“Why should there be pressure to sign up?” Murphy said. “That’s a fundamental problem with the program.”

Johnson spokesman Brian Schubert praised the program’s successes and said Democrats including Murphy could have done more to help seniors enroll instead of playing politics.

“The number of seniors benefiting from the program would be even higher if Democrats like Chris Murphy had put as much energy into helping seniors as they did scaring them,” Schubert said.

Johnson won the 5th District with 60 percent of the vote in 2004, but John Kerry also carried it, by just more than 1,000 votes.

Democrat Diane Farrell, who is challenging Shays in the Democratic-leaning 4th District, said, “It’s sad that Chris waited until 24 hours before the deadline to alleviate seniors’ anxiety.” Farrell won 48 percent of the vote against Shays in 2004.

Shays said the timing was important to get as many people signed up as possible.

“If you tell people they don’t have to sign up, then you’d have a lot of people not sign up,” Shays said. “So you have to have a deadline. That would have been a huge mistake. And we got a lot of people to sign up that should have signed up, and now they’ll have the benefits.”

Shays said he still opposes an extension of the sign-up period. He said last week that people have already had two years to learn about Part D and six months to sign up.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) echoed Shays’s comments in defending the late move Tuesday at a press conference announcing similar Senate legislation: “If on April the 15th we had extended the deadline for you not to file your taxes till May 15, you wouldn’t have filed until May 15.”

The next enrollment period begins Nov. 15, and seniors would have to pay an extra 1 percent for every month they sign up late. That means an automatic 7 percent late fee once the new period starts, equaling just more than $2 per month.