The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services probably will stick to the current May 15 registration deadline for the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

Democrats who would like to see the Bush administration extend the deadline acknowledged that an extension is unlikely at a recent hearing of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health.

Under current program rules, Medicare beneficiaries who sign up for Part D coverage after May 15 may end up paying a higher rate for coverage.

Rep. Fortney Pete Stark, D-Calif., the most senior Democrat on the subcommittee, noted that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt confirmed the administration’s commitment to the May 15 deadline during a Senate committee hearing.

But Stark said he was “hoping you guys would have an epiphany.”

Extending the deadline would help more applicants sign up for Part D coverage, and the extra cost to the program of not penalizing beneficiaries who sign up late would be “chump change for a trillion-dollar program,” Stark said.

“We on this side of the aisle would have no problems giving credit to the Republicans” if the Republicans allow for a deadline extension, Stark said.

But Dr. Mark McClellan, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the deadline has succeeded at inducing seniors to sign up.

“Most people don’t do their Christmas shopping in August,” McClellan said.

The deadline helped the program draw 1.6 more enrollees than it might have drawn without the deadline, McClellan said, citing estimates made by CMS actuaries.