(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Hoping to boost enrollment in new Medicare drug coverage and increase the program's popularity, President Bush defended it Wednesday against criticism that the signup process is too confounding for seniors and too expensive for taxpayers.
Polls show most who have enrolled are happy to get help with their medicine costs. But many seniors and those trying to help them still are complaining about the program's complexity. Most people have more than 40 plans to select from, and savings vary depending on the medicines needed, income levels and the plan chosen.
But Bush, finishing a three-day swing through the state with the highest percentage of senior citizens, said choice is a crucial element of the program.
For one thing, he said that making several plans available creates competition that is driving down the program's cost -- a chief complaint of conservatives who have bemoaned the enormous expense of the new government benefit.
Also, "not everybody's needs are the same," the president said.
"The program is not as complicated as one would initially think," he said during an appearance at the Puerto Rican Club of Central Florida. "And there are lot of people who can help you."
The new program allows 43 million seniors and disabled people to enroll in a government-paid private plan that will subsidize the cost of their prescription medications through Medicare. About 37 million people have now either signed up or been automatically enrolled, so federal officials from Bush on down are engaged in an all-out push to spread the word to those remaining and help them navigate the process of selecting a plan.
The president is working against two clocks: Monday's fast-approaching deadline to enroll without the penalty of higher premiums and the fall's midterm elections.
Democrats, advocacy groups for seniors and others have called on Bush to extend the May 15 deadline to sign up for the coverage. Those who do not enroll by then -- except for low-income retirees -- face higher premiums.
In Washington on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi were gathering about 200 seniors to repeat that plea. "Millions of seniors run the risk of paying the price for the confusing and complicated program," said a statement from their offices.
Bush has repeatedly rejected the idea of extending the deadline.
That's in part because the White House and congressional Republicans are hoping that the glitches of the program's early days and the confusing signup process will have faded from memory by the fall midterm elections, replaced by widespread satisfaction with having help from Medicare with prescription drug costs for the first time.
As the controlling party in Congress, Republicans would like to see the elderly give them credit in the voting booth for enacting a popular benefit.
Before a mostly Latino audience -- the poor and minorities are lagging behind in signing up for the prescription drug benefit -- Bush urged the elderly to at least look at the program and take advantage of the help offered. He said the average senior citizen sees drug costs cut by half through the program.
"We're here today to talk about a Medicare plan that I believe's a good deal for America's seniors," the president said. "It's very important for people to understand there are significant savings for you involved in this plan."