GOP candidates defiant on drug deadline

Republican incumbents and challengers in key House and Senate races have sided with Democrats to support postponing the Medicare prescription-drug enrollment deadline, breaking from President Bush and GOP congressional leaders who are committed to keeping the deadline in place.

Dozens of Republicans running for office this year say senior citizens and other Medicare beneficiaries should be allowed more time to enroll in the program.

Under current law, beneficiaries have until May 15 to enroll in the drug benefit. After next week, they face a 1 percent increase in their monthly premiums for each month they sign up late.

“It’s coming down the stretch toward the May 15th deadline,” Bush said yesterday in Florida. “We want everybody to sign up.”

Since drug coverage began Jan. 1, implementation has been rocky and full of “glitches,” Bush said.

Democrats have touted the program’s difficulties and are vowing to make its failures a point of contention in November. Democratic leaders and left-leaning groups will highlight the May 15 deadline at a press conference today on Capitol Hill.

The Campaign for America’s Future, which will participate in today’s event, issued a report yesterday finding that Hispanic taxpayers — a political swing group — are at a higher risk of missing the enrollment deadline because of cultural, language and economic barriers.

Some Republican incumbents and challengers in tenuous races are echoing Democratic cries for a deadline extension.

“I 100 percent support extending the deadline,” said Brad Jones, a Republican running for retiring the seat that Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) is vacating.

After attending senior forums on Medicare Part D, Jones said, “The message that I heard loud and clear was: ‘Scrap that initiative and start over.’ There are still so many questions. The deadline needs to be extended a minimum of 90 days, if not until year’s end.”

GOP contenders who said they would support postponing the deadline include Van Taylor, hoping to unseat Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas); Doug Roulstone, running against Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.); Scott Tipton, a challenger to Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.); and Tom Kean Jr., running against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

“I call on President Bush and [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Mike] Leavitt to extend the deadline for enrollment until the obvious flaws in the implementation of this program can be corrected,” Kean said. “The penalty to be imposed on seniors who switch plans in the first year of participation is ridiculous and must be eliminated. Seniors should not be penalized for the improper implementation of this program.”

Republicans vying for open seats who support an extension include Jones; Ed Bryant, who is running for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); Martha Rainville, running for the seat of Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); and Rich Tarrant, hoping to replace retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.).

Many GOP challengers did not return calls, while some deemed the deadline issue irrelevant in their districts.

“It’s not surprising that this sentiment exists among Republican candidates,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Patru. “[Democrats are] spreading confusion. They’re overly complicating the issue. … Their political success on this issue depends on keeping seniors away from their available savings.”

“In terms of the candidates that aren’t commenting, this is a black-or-white issue. You either side with seniors or you side with special interests — prescription-drug companies,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg.

Unlike many Republican candidates, nearly all Democratic challengers returned phone calls and voiced their support for delaying the deadline and rescinding the enrollment penalty.

Patru said that when Democrats proposed their own version of a Medicare drug program in 2003 they had originally set an enrollment deadline of May 1.

“They’ve taken to flip-flopping on the enrollment deadline. They’re switching their story for political gain,” Patru said.

Democratic challenger Ron Klein, running for the seat of Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), has prodded the senior member of the Ways and Means Committee for refusing to back an extension.

“Shaw has a golden opportunity to demonstrate that he is able to put the needs of his constituents over the will of the president and prescription-drug companies,” Klein said in a release.

Shaw spokeswoman Gail Gitcho echoed Patru about the initial Democratic May 1 deadline provision.

“[We’re] curious why Democrats are advocating for the extension, because all along they have been saying that this is an awful program,” Gitcho said.

Three Republican hopefuls returned calls to say they support keeping the deadline: Ralph Norman, contending for the seat of Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.); Mike Bouchard, a challenger to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.); and Brian Kennedy, hoping to capture the seat Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is vacating.

“I think we’ve had a very good success with people understanding the program,” Kennedy said. “Let’s go forward and see how the program works.”

Some Republican incumbents in key electoral districts are not willing to give beneficiaries more enrollment leeway.

“People have had two years to learn about the benefit and over six months to sign up, and I hope they will do so before the May 15 deadline,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who faces a tough race against Diane Farrell (D).

Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) is “happy with the May 15 deadline and doesn’t want to change the 1 percent penalty,” said spokesman Rob Nichols.

Eighteen Republicans in the House have sponsored or co-sponsored bills in favor of delaying the deadline.

Facing a tough reelection campaign this fall, first-term Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) introduced a bill that would set the deadline at Nov. 14 and roll back late-enrollment penalties for two years.

In his town hall meetings, Fitzpatrick said, constituents expressed confusion about the program, a sentiment that “will subside over time,” but, he said, he hopes “the administration will take the extension into consideration.”

“Congress cannot in good conscience allow thousands of seniors to suffer penalties simply because they could not make an informed decision for their healthcare coverage in time,” Fitzpatrick said recently in a floor speech.

However, Bush and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have no plans to extend the deadline. Some Republicans have noted that such a move would come with a price tag.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that postponing the deadline would cost $100 million this year and potentially billions if pushed back repeatedly.

Although there have been several Republican bills introduced to delay the drug deadline, Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is a co-sponsor of a measure offered by Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the most popular Democratic version.

It’s not the first time Moran, who faces no danger of losing his seat this fall, has defied his leaders on Medicare. Moran voted against the 2003 drug bill, triggering a rebuke from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in his autobiography.

Moran signed onto Stark’s bill because it was “the first one that came out,” said Moran’s spokeswoman Nicole Young. In February, Moran introduced a bill that would extend the deadline until the end of 2006.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), one of the six GOP co-sponsors to Fitzpatrick’s bill, faces a difficult rematch against Democratic contender Lois Murphy.

“Seniors need more time to assess their options under the program, and they shouldn’t be penalized for joining the program after May 15 just because their medical condition changes and that necessitates them getting into it,” Gerlach said.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) is a co-sponsor of a bill offered by Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) that would give beneficiaries a three-month extension to enroll.

“Extending the deadline will give seniors an opportunity to get the information and assistance they may need to enroll in the benefit program,” Chabot said in a release.

A bill introduced in September by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) that would lengthen the enrollment period until June 30, 2007, has eight Republican co-sponsors.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) last week also introduced a bill to extend the Medicare drug deadline and reform the program.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) bucked party leadership and introduced a bill that would extend enrollment until the end of 2006. Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) have voted for an amendment by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to the tax-reconciliation bill that would set the deadline at Dec. 31, 2006.