Survey: Many unaware of new drug benefits

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 29, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Almost 70 percent of elderly Medicare recipients don’t know the program’s new prescription drug benefit has been signed into law, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And a majority of those surveyed – 55 percent – said their impression of the drug benefit, which President Bush signed in December, is unfavorable. Another 17 percent have a good impression of the benefit that will begin being phased into place in April. The remainder of the group surveyed had a neutral impression.

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Duane Hass, a resident in Lake Prince Retirement Center and volunteer lobbyist for the state AARP, said that organization supports the Medicare drug benefit program.

&uot;It’s going to do a lot of good for a lot of people, particularly those in low- and middle-income brackets,&uot; said Hass. &uot;It’s going to help millions of people.&uot;

Hass expressed concern that

&uot;doughnut holes&uot; in the plan make it less beneficial to the country’s wealthy populations.

&uot;It’s a start to something we’ve needed for a long time,&uot; he said. &uot;I think they felt that this was the time when something could be done.&uot;

Waiting for a better proposal could have resulted in a lost opportunity, since federal lawmakers will be focusing most of their attention on the upcoming 2004 presidential race this year, he added.

Hass was surprised that so few people are aware of the changes to the Medicare program. The AARP has publicized it in its monthly bulletins and magazines and will be having workshops around the country to educate people, he said.

Pat Winters, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk Health Department, said the local agency hasn’t received any promotional material on the new drug benefit program yet. However, the agency will disseminate information to its eligible clients as it becomes available, she said.

Among those who knew the Medicare drug benefit had become law, an even greater percentage had an unfavorable impression. Only a minority of those polled said they understand the benefit very well, leading researchers to conclude that many older Americans may be vulnerable to political grandstanding.

&uot;The lack of understanding of the prescription drug law makes it ripe for political demagoguery on both sides as we enter the election season,&uot; said foundation president Drew Altman. &uot;The president will say he delivered a good prescription drug law, and the Democratic candidate will say it’s a bad law. How are seniors to judge?&uot;

The Bush administration is spending more than $12 million on a television, radio, newspaper and Internet campaign in support of the law and an additional $10 million on a mailing to each of the nation’s 40 million older and disabled Americans.

Opponents recruited Walter Cronkite for a campaign that highlights what they see as the law’s shortcomings. Cronkite appears in and narrates an 11-minute video that Families USA plans to send to 10,000 senior citizen centers and retirement communities to explain changes in Medicare.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Wednesday that the more beneficiaries learn about the law, the more they like it.

Full Medicare prescription drug benefits don’t start until 2006. Until then, older Americans can expect to see the first savings though discount cards available for purchase from insurance companies and pharmacies as early as April 1. When the full drug benefit starts, recipients would pay for the first $250 in drug costs and Medicare would pay for 75 percent of the next $2,000 in prescription drug bills. Between $2,250 and $5,100 in drug costs, the government would pay nothing. Over $5,100, the government would pay all but 5 percent of prescription costs.

The telephone poll of 237 elderly people was conducted Feb. 5 through Feb. 8 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.7 percentage points.