Embargoed for release until:
Thursday, July 27, 2006

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Nearly Two In 10 Who Have Used Their Drug Plan Say They Experienced A Major Problem

Nearly Half In Medicare Drug Plans Say They Are Saving Money Compared To Last Year

More than eight in 10 seniors who are enrolled in a Medicare drug plan are satisfied with their plan, although almost two in 10 say they encountered a major problem in using it, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking survey of seniors’ experiences under the new Medicare drug benefit.

The survey of 1,585 seniors, including 623 who are enrolled in a new Medicare Part D drug plan, reveals that, for most seniors, initial experiences under the drug benefit have been positive. About three in four seniors who are enrolled in a drug plan would choose the same plan again.

The survey also finds that about a third (34%) of seniors who have used their plan had experiences that they perceived as a problem — with 18% describing it as a “major problem” and 16% describing it as a “minor problem.” The experiences cited as problems include having to pay unexpected costs, leaving the pharmacy without being able to fill a prescription, not receiving their enrollment card and having to switch drugs because one wasn’t covered. Some seniors also cited having to switch from a brand-name to a generic drug as a problem, though others who reported such an experience did not consider it to be a problem.

Nearly all (90%) of those reporting minor problems say that the problem was resolved to their satisfaction. Slightly more than half (55%) of those reporting a major problem say that it had been resolved, with the rest (44%) saying it was unresolved.

Among seniors who have used their drug plans, those in fair or poor health were significantly more likely to report experiencing major problems with their plan (27%) than seniors in excellent or very good health (12%). Higher rates of problems were also reported by seniors who take six or more prescriptions each day (29%) and seniors with incomes of less than $20,000 annually (26%).

“Most seniors say they are satisfied with their drug plans, but it bears close monitoring that the sickest seniors are most likely to report problems,” said Foundation President and CEO Drew E. Altman, Ph.D.

The nationally representative tracking poll — the 13th in a series that comprises three large surveys and 10 smaller tracking polls — was conducted from June 8 to June 18.

The survey shows that among seniors who have used their Medicare drug plan, nearly half (46%) say they are saving money on their prescription drugs. Most of the others say they are paying about the same as they did last year for their drugs (34%), though one in six (17%) say they are paying more.

Overall, seniors who are enrolled in Medicare plans have mixed views about whether changes are needed to improve the program. About as many say that the program “is working well and no real changes are needed” (24%) as say that the program “is not working and needs major changes” (27%). Most others say that the program “could be improved with some minor changes” (35%).

The survey also captures seniors’ overall attitudes toward the drug benefit, their knowledge about it, and their reasons for enrolling or not enrolling in a plan. Among all seniors, roughly equal numbers view the drug benefit favorably (32%) as unfavorably (30%). The share reporting unfavorable views has dropped substantially since the first weeks of the initial enrollment period in December, when most seniors needed to decide whether to enroll in a plan and, if so, which plan.

Among all seniors, relatively few consider prescription drugs to be the driving issue in the upcoming elections. When asked to identify the “single most important” issue in the 2006 Congressional election, seniors ranked prescription drugs ninth on a list of 12 issues, behind such issues as the situation in Iraq; the U.S. campaign against terrorism; gas prices; immigration; and health care overall. The poll was taken before the current conflict in Israel and Lebanon began.

“With the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and Iraq, high gas prices and other problems on their minds, it certainly doesn’t look like the prescription drug law will be a significant factor when older voters cast their ballots in the fall,” Dr. Altman said.

The survey tested seniors’ knowledge about the Medicare drug benefit’s coverage gap, or “doughnut hole,” in which most plans stop paying for medications and seniors must pay the full cost of their prescriptions. One- third of seniors in a Medicare drug plan say that their plan has a coverage gap (34%); about as many say that their plan does not have a gap (36%); and the others say they did not know or refused to answer (30%). Nearly all plans have such a gap, though seniors receiving low-income assistance, including those receiving Medicaid, do not experience the gap due to government subsidies.

Nearly two in three seniors overall are also unaware of the special assistance available to low-income seniors. Even among the group most likely to qualify for low-income assistance — those with incomes of less than $20,000 — 32% say they were aware of the program, administered by Social Security, which helps low-income seniors with premiums and cost-sharing requirements under the Medicare drug benefit.

“Despite an intense outreach effort by the Administration and advocates alike, there are still large numbers of eligible seniors who are simply unaware of the extra help available to them,” said Foundation Vice President Mollyann Brodie, Ph.D., the director of the Foundation’s Public Opinion and Media Research program.

The full survey results, including charts of key data, are available online.


Seniors’ Early Experiences with Their Medicare Drug Plans – the 13th in a series that comprises three large surveys and ten smaller tracking polls – was conducted and analyzed by researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fieldwork by PSRAI occurred between June 8 and June 18, 2006, among a nationally representative random sample of 1,585 adults ages 65 and older. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

We report on several different groups of seniors including: 1) seniors enrolled in Medicare drug plans, including those who reported being in stand-alone prescription drug plans, Medicare and Medicaid enrollees (i.e. dual eligibles), and Medicare HMO enrollees (40% of all seniors, unweighted n=623), and 2) seniors who have used their Medicare drug plans (28% of all seniors, unweighted n=443).

The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points for all seniors, and plus or minus 4 points for seniors enrolled in Medicare drug plans. For results based on smaller subsets of respondents the margin of sampling error is higher. Note that sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to providing information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers, the media, the health care community and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.


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