Federal officials are extending today's deadline some people picking a Medicare prescription drug or private health plan because of the crush of last-minute sign-ups.
There's a catch. The extension is available only to seniors who seek official help with their decision by the close of business today, said a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
And one other thing, the extension is only three days long.
Here are some ways to qualify. Call the government-funded State Health Insurance Information Program (SHIP) or Medicare's toll-free information line (1-800-633-4227). Or call another organization that partners with Medicare such as the Medicare Rights Center, local agencies on aging, and the National Council on Aging. Leave a message, if nobody can help you right away.
Starting Thursday, Medicare beneficiaries can expect a call back with help. All these call-back enrollments then have until 12:01 a.m. Sunday to complete their Medicare choices, the government spokesman said.
"We are committed to providing Medicare beneficiaries with the information and time they need to make these important decisions about their care," said Brian Cook, a Medicare spokesman.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said Gina Upchurch, executive director of Senior PharmAssist, which helps seniors in Durham, N.C., choose drug plans and Medicare Advantage health plans.
Some SHIP counselors said the late rush has been complicated by sporadic problems with the government's "plan finder" website and call center. The website allows a user to type in a Zip code, drugs, and preferred pharmacy, and the plan finder produces a list of plans available in the area that cover those drugs.
But Medicare officials denied that any technical glitches affected the decision to extend the enrollment period. However, officials assured SHIP counselors in emails on Monday and Tuesday that website problems would be resolved.
More people enrolled on Monday than on any other day since enrollment for 2012 plans began Oct. 15, according to Medicare officials.
The 2010 health law mandated that Medicare move up the traditional enrollment season. In the past, beneficiaries had until Dec. 31 to make their choices.
Upchurch said that in the past few days, about two dozen appointments at Senior PharmAssist were canceled when counselors couldn't use the plan finder because it was slow or didn't work at all at times.
In Arlington, Va., SHIP counselor John Glowacky encountered similar problems when he tried to help his clients. "Yesterday the website was absolutely worthless," he said Tuesday evening. "You couldn't do your job. Today was smooth sailing, and we'll see what tomorrow brings."
But some seniors' advocates said all beneficiaries should be entitled to the extra enrollment time.
"There ought to be recourse across the board, not just for those who were fortunate enough to find assistance from SHIPs," said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a consumer group based in Connecticut.