LACEY—After months of combing through insurance plans, comparing drug prices and breaking into tears as she sought advice, Beth Beck joined thousands of Americans who signed up for the government's new prescription drug program Monday.
Forgive her if she's not feeling any better now that it's finished.
"The only thing good about it is I can take all this, all the paperwork, and throw it in the trash," Beck, 64, said after choosing a plan at the Lacey Senior Center.
Similar scenes played out across the nation Monday as seniors raced to beat a midnight deadline for enrolling in the new Medicare drug benefit program.
The government drug subsidies are handled by private benefit carriers in each state. Officials estimate that the average beneficiary will save about $1,100, though some may not save any money.
Those who wait for the next enrollment period face a monthly penalty in the form of higher premiums.
Congressional Democrats, including those from Washington state, and a few Republicans have leaned on the Bush administration to extend the deadline and cut the penalty payments.
Political activists also were pressing the issue. In Washington state, liberal groups were planning to deliver empty pill bottles to the office of Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a swing-district freshman who is up for re-election this fall.
At the Lacey Senior Center, many seniors who came in for help said they had put off their decision, believing policy makers would either move the deadline back or erase the penalty payments, manager Chris Quimby said.
"I'm sure there's some holdouts," he said.
Medicare officials stuck by the Monday deadline and believed it had made a difference in prompting thousands more beneficiaries to sign up for drug benefits.
"It could be returning a library book, renewing your driver's license, sending your Mother's Day card — there's something about a fixed point in time that gets people to sit up, pay attention and take action on it," said Michael Marchand, spokesperson for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in Seattle.
Of some 829,000 Medicare beneficiaries in Washington state, about 70 percent were covered by some form of prescription plan as of mid-April. That includes about 250,000 people who elected to sign up for the benefits, Marchand said.
Officials kept federal sign-up phone lines open late, and upgraded their computers to handle an influx of online registrations, Marchand said.
Others were relying on face-to-face help to make their decision. Beck and her husband, Keith, 69, traveled roughly 50 miles from the town of Lilliwaup, in Mason County, to get some advice about which plan to choose.
After weighing the average yearly cost of several competing plans, Beck settled on one that seemed to give her a good deal on the medications needed to treat her diabetes. But she still felt stressed and confused by the process, she said.
"I think we're getting screwed," Beck said.
— The Associated Press