WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, rejecting calls to extend the Monday deadline for enrolling in the Medicare drug plan, says the program is working so well that 86% of seniors now have some source of prescription coverage.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt announced Wednesday that 37 million Medicare beneficiaries out of 43 million now have coverage, with less than a week to go before the deadline.
But critics accused the administration of inflating the numbers by combining counts of people who had signed up for coverage with estimates of seniors who had insurance from other sources.
That could underestimate the number of seniors facing lifetime penalties if they failed to meet the deadline for joining the Medicare program.
A New York-based advocacy group, the Medicare Rights Center, pointed out that the administration's numbers included 5.8 million people who were "estimated" to be covered through Veterans Affairs, private workplace insurance and other sources.
"In fact, many of these 5.8 million people do not have drug coverage, and many others of them have signed up [for the Medicare plan] and are thus being counted twice," Robert M. Hayes, the center's president, said in a statement.
"I think they are raising an important point," said Tricia Neuman, a senior Medicare policy expert for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been closely tracking the prescription benefit, known as Part D. "It's important that people who are estimated to have drug coverage actually have it."
Without most of the additional 5.8 million, the administration would probably miss the 90% coverage goal that officials are aiming for.
Nonetheless, Neuman said the continued brisk pace of enrollment was good news.
"I know there are a lot of questions about the numbers," she said, "but they are moving forward."
Medicare Administrator Mark B. McClellan defended the accuracy of the estimates. "Those are firm numbers," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats were drafting a last-ditch letter appealing directly to President Bush to extend the deadline.
"If someone wanted to be compassionate toward senior citizens, don't you think one thing they would try to do is help them avoid a penalty?" Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told a spirited rally of union retirees.
About 70% of seniors favor extending the deadline, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month.
But the administration has granted an extension only for certain low-income seniors who qualify for government subsidies.
Bush has repeatedly said that deadlines are a good thing.
Visiting an Orlando, Fla., community organization Wednesday, he continued his personal campaign to urge seniors to sign up.
"It's very important for people to understand that there are significant savings for you involved in this plan," he said.
Like a preacher seeking testimonials at a revival meeting, Bush elicited anecdotes about the program's benefits.
Retiree Gloria S. Lavergne offered hers: "My premium is $26.60, my deductibles are $28, and I'm saving $550 per month," she said, winning applause.
"You just heard the testimony of Gloria," the president joined in. "She's saving $500 a month."
Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Orlando.