After Friday's announcement that Medicare would extend the Part D enrollment deadline for low-income beneficiaries, Leslie Norwalk, the Deputy Administrator of CMS, said it is not legally permissible, according to rules set out in the Medicare Modernization Act:
The 2003 Medicare law states that a "special enrollment period" beyond the deadline can be established only for beneficiaries with exceptional circumstances (Freking, AP/St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/14). CMS earlier this month announced that it will allow "ongoing" enrollment in the Medicare prescription drug benefit for beneficiaries who qualify for a low-income subsidy (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 4/14). Democratic lawmakers and some advocacy groups have been pressing the Bush administration to extend the deadline for all Medicare beneficiaries. However, Norwalk said giving an extension to all 43 million eligible beneficiaries would "undermin[e] what Congress put into place." She added, "Our actuaries tell us 1.6 million fewer people would enroll if we do that. We are not going to push back the deadline." Norwalk also said the deadline encourages people with relatively few drug expenses to enroll, allowing for lower overall costs.
So when you mess around with the enrollment deadline, it does, in fact, discourage people from signing up until the next deadline. CMS was proposing to extend the deadline indefinitely, which is a truly terrible idea, because those who are not inclined to do so (i.e. those without high drug costs) will definitely not sign up.
More than that, the problem with this bill is not the deadline, and Democrats (and others) need to stop pretending it is. The problem is the huge array of "choices", which make it overly difficult to choose a plan, and is therefore acting as a huge barrier to enrollment. Changing the deadline won't solve that problem, and as Norwalk says, might actually decrease the enrollment.
But someone in the administration should have figured this out before announcing an enrollment extension.