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Don’t Like It, Don’t Understand It, Don’t Plan to Use It: Seniors on the New Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit

by Ruy Teixeira

On Sunday, the New York Times has a front-page story on the reception of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, “Confusion Is Rife about Drug Plan as Sign-Up Nears.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Brian D. Caswell, a former president of the Kansas Pharmacists Association, said he spent two to three hours a day explaining the Medicare drug benefit to customers at his store in rural Baxter Springs. He encouraged them to take a look at the new program.

But Mr. Caswell said: “The program is so poorly designed and is creating so much confusion that it’s having a negative effect on most beneficiaries. It’s making people cynical about the whole process—the new program, the government's help.”

Robert W. Nyquist, a pharmacist in Lindsborg, Kan., said customers had told him: “This is just beyond me. I can’t decipher which drug plan is cheapest. . . .”

Even after attending the seminar [on the new benefit], Raymond L. Middlesworth, 70, a retired truck driver from Urbana, said he was baffled.

“I’ve tried reading the Medicare book about the drug plan,” Mr. Middlesworth said, “but I couldn’t make sense of it. This is the biggest mess that Medicare has ever put us through.”

Survey data documenting this confusion are provided by a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll of seniors. Here are some of the survey’s key findings.

1. Views of seniors on the new benefit remain negative (31 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable).

2. Just 36 percent of seniors say they have enough information about the new benefit to understand how it would impact them personally.

3. A mere 20 percent currently say they plan to enroll in the benefit plan.

4. Among those who do not currently plan to enroll for benefits, the most common “major reason” why they are not planning to enroll is having a preexisting plan to pay for prescription drugs (60 percent), followed by “I don’t know enough about it” (46 percent) and “I don’t think it would save me money” (45 percent).

5. Only 19 percent believe the new benefit will be “very helpful” to them personally and another 20 percent believe it will “somewhat helpful.”

6. As for the wide choice of prescription drug plans available to most seniors (typically around forty), this is mostly viewed as a liability, with almost three-quarters (73 percent) saying that such a wide range of choices make it confusing and difficult to pick the best plan.

As Paul Krugman put it in a recent column, “[P]oliticians who don’t believe in a positive role for government shouldn’t be allowed to design new government programs.” I think there are a lot of seniors out there who would agree with that assessment.