The Monday deadline for seniors to enroll in Medicare's prescription drug program is rapidly approaching. Under the law enacting the program, eligible individuals must sign up by then. If they don't, they will have to pay 1 percent more for their coverage for each month that they wait to sign up. And this penalty will be in effect for the rest of the beneficiaries' life.

I think this penalty is terribly unfair. And I am concerned that there is still a lot of confusion about the program. As a nurse, I am particularly worried about the potentially life-threatening effects of this dilemma and have been working to help seniors deal with the program's problems.

People are still having problems enrolling in the program, which isn't very surprising given the maze of rules and regulations involved. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent healthcare research group, nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries don't even know that Monday is the cutoff to enroll in a drug plan without penalty.

In search of information about the various plans available, many have turned to drug plan sponsored call centers. Federal standards for these call centers require that 80 percent of calls be answered within 30 seconds. Yet, test calls to several large insurers have found that many fail to met these requirements (The New York Times, April 24).

A recently released Government Accounting Office report revealed that written materials provided by Medicare are unclear and one-third of all calls to its help line resulted in no answer or an answer that was inaccurate or incomplete. The Medicare Web site does not even comply with basic federal requirements for accessibility to disabled users, which is especially disturbing given that a high number of Medicare beneficiaries are disabled.

Given the multitude of problems associated with the implementation of the program, I have co-sponsored legislation to extend the deadline to Dec. 31, but the Republican leadership of the House refuses to even bring it up for a hearing.

Last week, Medicare officials announced that they would change Part D policy to ensure that, even when insurance providers change their formularies, already-enrolled beneficiaries would be guaranteed coverage of any medications that were originally covered in their plan through the end of the year.

These much-needed changes are good first steps but we need to extend the enrollment deadline for all eligible beneficiaries. Seniors and other Medicare beneficiaries need additional time to enroll without incurring devastating life-long penalties. We also need the time to make other essential changes to the program, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices. Our goal must be that this program truly does provide seniors and the disabled with affordable prescription drugs.

- Lois Capps, a Democrat, represents the 23rd Congressional District, which covers portions of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

This is cache, read story here