Seniors Have Negative Impressions of Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program, Report Finds
Seniors are "confused and generally negative" about the new Medicare prescription drug discount card program and the drug benefit that will be available in 2006, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report released Thursday, CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 6/3). The discount card program, which was created as part of the new Medicare law and debuted Tuesday, is available to Medicare beneficiaries who do not have prescription drug coverage through Medicaid. Beneficiaries have access to a number of discount cards sponsored by private companies and endorsed by Medicare. Card sponsors can charge an annual enrollment fee of as much as $30 and likely will offer savings on at least one medication in each of 209 classes of treatments commonly used by Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes of less than $12,569 for individuals or $16,862 for couples will qualify for a $600 annual subsidy for their prescription drug costs and will not have to pay enrollment fees. Beneficiaries can use the Medicare Web site or call 1-800-MEDICARE to make card-to-card comparisons of prescription drug discounts. According to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, the discount cards provide average savings of about 10% to 17% for brand-name medications and 30% to 60% for generic treatments (California Healthline, 6/2).
The report, which was based on 10 focus groups conducted in Pittsburgh; Kansas City, Kan.; and Washington, D.C., by pollsters from Democratic firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, looked at seniors' attitudes toward the discount cards and the prescription drug benefit (Kenen, Reuters, 6/3). Seniors in the focus groups rated their feelings toward the new law at an average mean score of 31, on a scale ranging from one to 100, with one being the most negative and 100 the most positive. After receiving detailed descriptions of the law, seniors' opinions improved slightly to an average of 36. According to the report, most seniors are not aware of prices the cards offer, and "they have no idea that the law includes additional benefits" (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3). The report also found that many seniors did not think that the discount cards nor the $600 annual subsidies were substantial enough. Further, many seniors said it was hard for them to choose one of the 73 available cards (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 6/4). According to Reuters, seniors were "not much more favorably inclined" toward the drug benefit, scheduled to begin in 2006, with many expressing concern about the so called "doughnut hole" in drug coverage -- the gap in coverage between $2,250 and $3,600 -- and about the penalty for beneficiaries who do not sign up for coverage when it is first offered to them. Seniors who currently lack drug coverage responded most favorably to the drug benefit than any other group. Geoff Garin, president of the Peter D. Hart firm, said, "They get that this is a great law for them." However, he added that the group "feels the most at sea" about their ability to obtain the benefits through the law's requirements. The report concludes, "It is clear from these groups that seniors are very confused and not yet informed about what is happening to their Medicare" (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3).
According to the Herald, "[w]ithin hours of the report's release, [CMS Administrator Mark] McClellan was on the phone to reporters nationwide defending what his agency has done and pledging to do more" (Boston Herald, 6/4). McClellan told reporters that seniors' negative impressions are a result of misinformation being provided to them, Reuters reports. He said, "The report from Kaiser emphasized negative news reports and the negative ad environment," which "left seniors confused and uncertain about what the law might mean for them" (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3). He added that his agency's "new challenge is to help make sure beneficiaries are getting accurate and truthful information" (Boston Herald, 6/4). He said that CMS is increasing efforts to educate beneficiaries about the drug cards by staffing Medicare's toll-free phone lines with 3,000 operators (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3). He also said that he thought senior's impressions of the discount cards could have improved since the focus groups were conducted in May (Colliver, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/4). HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said that negativity from seniors toward the new Medicare law "reflects the misinformation that's been put out by Democrats and advocacy groups like the Medicare Rights Center and Families USA to put negative thoughts in their heads about this" (CongressDaily, 6/3).
Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of its Medicare Policy Project, said, "With the discount card, there's the matter of confusion and how to choose the right card. But there's also the question of whether the savings are worth it" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/4). She added, "We're not surprised at the level of confusion, given the lack of knowledge found in (previous) surveys" (Boston Herald, 6/4). Garin said, "The reaction is quite negative. People don't think it's going to provide significant enough help for them" (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3). He added that even when seniors were given more information about the cards, it did "not produce a much more favorable view of the system (CongressDaily, 6/3). Garin said, "There is a huge challenge over the next 18 months to encourage seniors to participate," adding, "If they don't, this may not be a viable benefit" (Wheeler, Gannett/Arizona Republic, 6/3). However, Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies said public opinion could change now that the discount cards are available. He added, "These are actual benefits that are now helping some large chunk of people" (Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/4). He said that one situation affecting seniors' opinions is that they are "acquiring information in the middle of a political campaign" (Rovner, Reuters, 6/3). Ira Loss, a health policy analyst for Washington Analysis, said that the report "reflects the general attitude of the public that they don't believe this is any good for them," adding, "Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but people are skeptical" (Boston Herald, 6/4). The report is available online. NPR's "Morning Edition" on Friday reported on the study. The segment includes comments from Garin, McInturff and a focus group participant (Silberner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/4). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.