Will they or won’t they?

That is indeed the question. Not for Hamlet but for the millions of seniors who did not register for the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan by the May 15 deadline date and who, under the law, now face a penalty amounting to about 7% of future premiums if they do choose to enroll sometime down the road.

The question on these seniors’ lips is: Will a bunch of bipartisan senators be strong enough to get legislation passed that would get rid of this penalty?

The answer is ‘probably so,’ at least as far as the Senate goes. But then there are the additional hurdles of President Bush and the House, who tend to be stricter in terms of fiscal restraint except when it comes to tax cuts and raising the national debt.

So, it’s not a done deal by any means. But the seniors do have one ace up their sleeve; namely, they remember and they vote. This always scares politicians.

The fact is that many seniors are pissed off at how complicated the program is. Unfortunately, many of them forgot the advanced algebra they learned so long ago but which they needed to negotiate their way through the myriad possibilities offered by the law.

You know you’re in trouble when the most noted feature of a much ballyhooed government benefit is the notorious “donut hole” (not the government’s term, obviously, for the hiatus in coverage that is right smack dab in the middle of what the government will subsidize).

The ire of many seniors will be even greater once they realize that for many of them the donut hole is really an abyss in which their out-of-pocket expenses go into free fall.

Then, of course, there was the initial disastrous implementation for many who did enroll. So severe was the botched-up rollout that some states had to step in with emergency measures to make sure that seniors in need of their prescription drugs got them after being told by pharmacies that there were no records of them having enrolled in the program.

For these reasons, I would bet that the Senate plan has a fairly decent chance of being enacted.

Yet Congress is never without its moments of levity (most of the time unconscious).

Thus, as reported in The New York Times, House Majority Leader John Boehner said House leaders wanted to hold hearings on any proposal to waive late fees. Here’s the levity: “The question is, how is it paid for?” Boehner asked.

One estimate of how much it would cost to shelve the late penalties is $1.7 billion over five years. In terms of the amount of pork processed by both houses of Congress, this $1.7 billion doesn’t even amount to a Jimmy Dean sausage patty.

Would that Boehner had asked his question about the unending series of tax cuts that this Congress and this administration have pushed and whose cost will be borne by future generations. (The national debt as of May 18 was $8.34 trillion and climbing. Congress passed and the president signed a bill raising the debt limit to $9 trillion.)

In view of how fast we are racing toward the November mid-term elections, I think Congress will eventually come around to agreeing with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was quoted as saying, “It’s time to cut seniors a little slack.”

Steve Piontek

Editor-in-Chief