WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of procrastinating seniors kept Medicare's operators busy yesterday during the final hours of enrollment for the government's new drug benefit.
Laura Bush and top administration officials attended an afternoon registration drive at a local church, while critics of the program met at a pharmacy near the Capitol and urged the administration to extend the midnight deadline and waive a financial penalty for late enrollees.
At the District of Columbia's Shiloh Baptist Church, Bush met volunteers and some last-minute enrollees. She told people with little need for medicine to consider signing up for a private insurance plan, warning, ''As you age, it's likely you'll add medications to your healthcare."
Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said about 40,000 to 50,000 people were on the agency's website -- www.medicare.gov -- at any given moment yesterday. Operators at 1-800-Medicare were also experiencing a rush of calls, and most callers were having to wait a few minutes to reach an operator.
''We've seen a real surge," McClellan said. ''The deadline is making a difference."
Democratic lawmakers seized on comments from a leading Republican lawmaker, Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who said she would introduce legislation to help people who miss the deadline. She said she would try to eliminate the penalty that comes with late enrollment later this year.
For each month of delay, a beneficiary would have to pay an additional 1 percent of the national average premium. So a person who waits seven months will pay 7 percent of the national average premium -- or about an extra $2.50 per month.
''Mrs. Johnson always talks about listening to her constituents. But if she thinks waiving the penalty is all they're asking for, she needs to have her hearing checked," said Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California.
''After months of ignoring the pressing needs of seniors, Republicans are running for political cover by claiming they want to waive the penalty they imposed," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. ''Waiving the penalty does not do enough."
Johnson in turn took a swipe at Democrats, saying she believes the program has been quite successful, and enrollment might have been closer to 100 percent ''if the Democrats had put the welfare of our seniors ahead of their own political ambition."
While the enrollment deadline was midnight yesterday, the agency was leaving some margin for error. For example, operators would be taking calls until midnight on the West Coast, which would be 3 a.m. on the East Coast. McClellan said that people who could not reach an operator but left a message would be contacted coming days and given a chance to enroll.
Overall, there are about 43 million Medicare beneficiaries. The Bush administration estimates that about 37 million now have drug coverage either through Medicare, their employer, or through other government programs. That leaves about 6 million people without drug coverage, but Democrats said they believe the number is closer to 9 million.
The administration also notes that of the 6 million people they believe are still without coverage, about half will qualify for extra help in paying for their medicine. They are exempt from the enrollment deadline and penalty once they qualify for the extra subsidy.
Under the program, beneficiaries sign up with a private plan operating in their state.
Most beneficiaries have dozens of plans to choose from. The government subsidizes that drug coverage.