WASHINGTON (AP) – The government has added 9,000 operators, tripled its computer capacity for enrollment and will assist with more than 1,000 events in the week ahead as part of a final push for signing people up for the Medicare drug benefit.

Many lawmakers want to extend the May 15 deadline and waive the penalty for those who sign up later. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Sunday he opposes either move, which would be popular in an election year, though there are exceptions already for the poor.

Leavitt, in Associated Press interview, said he will go to 24 cities before the enrollment deadline to promote the administration’s efforts.

“We’ve got a shot at getting to 90 percent, which would be a remarkable outcome for the first year of the program,” Leavitt said by telephone from Indianapolis.

Leavitt was referring to the number of older and disabled people who have prescription drug coverage through Medicare, other federal programs such as the Veterans Administration’s, or their former employers.

Nearly 43 million people are eligible to sign up for drug coverage through Medicare. Leavitt said he estimates the number of beneficiaries with drug coverage through Medicare and other programs now stands at more than 38 million.

Leavitt said about half of those who have not signed up will have the deadline waived for them if the government determines they qualify for extra help because of their income. For the others, “the reason they have chosen not to sign up will probably be as true in June or July as it is today,” he said.

Leavitt said it would not be fair to those who signed up to waive the enrollment penalty. Some of those who have enrolled may not need the benefit yet, but are paying monthly premiums anyway and helping to fund the benefit.

The secretary said there are four groups of people who have declined to enroll. At the top of the list are those who have no drug expenses now.

“They don’t think they need a plan. But that not right. You should enroll so you preserve your options for the future,” he said. “The second group just think it’s for low-income citizens. That’s not true either,” he said.

Procrastinators make up the third group. Finally, some people just do not want to sign up for a government program, he said.

Leavitt also spent part of his Sunday talking about the steps the country is taking to prepare for bird flu. Some local and state health officials are concerned that Washington has given them the job of preparing for a potential outbreak without enough money.

Leavitt told CNN’s “Late Edition” that the federal government will help with developing a vaccine. It will pay for much of the country’s drug stockpile and help track the virus. But local governments also have to begin thinking about what they can do.

“If the city council thinks you’re not well prepared, maybe the city council needs to begin looking at more respirators instead of remodeling the swimming pool,” Leavitt said.

On the Net:

Official Medicare Web site: http://www.medicare.gov

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