Health Care

Polling Surpise: Seniors Happy with Drug Benefit

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A new poll shows that 80 percent of seniors are happy with the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, confounding many political analysts. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Health Policy correspondent Julie Rovner.


Medicare's new prescription drug benefit continues to confound political pundits. When it was enacted in 2003, mostly with Republican support, the program was considered a huge plus for President Bush and his party. But earlier this year, Democrats thought the pendulum had swung their way when seniors were confused by having to choose from among dozens of plans. However, the latest tracking survey from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation finds most seniors are satisfied with their drug plans.

NPR Health Policy Correspondent Julie Rovner joins us to talk about what this latest survey means. First of all, Julie, what did the survey find exactly?

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Well, the survey found that most people are happy, which came as a surprise, considering all the complaints that we've heard. Eighty percent of the people said they were satisfied with the plans they're in. Seventy-five percent said they would sign up for that same plan again. Those with a negative view of the benefit overall declined to its lowest point since the foundation has been doing these tracking polls, which goes back to the beginning of the benefit.

Interestingly, though, less than half of those surveyed said they're actually saving money. More than half said they're just spending the same or spending somewhat more.

HANSEN: You did mention that there was a 20 percent of people who aren't happy. Who's not happy?

ROVNER: Well, in particular, who's not happy are the people who are sicker and the people who are poorer. And that's a potentially serious problem, since those are the people the benefit was really intended to help the most. One in five people surveyed said they've experienced what they called a major problem using the benefit. And only half of those say that they've had that problem resolved so far.

And those in poor health are more than twice as likely to have reported problems, including those who earn less than $20,000 a year. So the people who take the most drugs and the people who earn least are most likely to have problems.

HANSEN: So why are so many people interested in how this particular benefit is doing?

ROVNER: Well, for starters, it affects 40 million Medicare beneficiaries, so that's a big chunk of the population. But, perhaps more importantly, and why most people are looking at it is for the political impact that it's likely to have. With the midterm elections coming up, seniors have always been a very important swing vote. In general, they vote in large numbers and in midterm elections they vote in proportionately larger numbers than the rest of the population. And often that can mean the difference in which party carry these elections.

HANSEN: But can you know anything from this survey about what impact that this is going to have on the elections?

ROVNER: Well, surveyors did in fact ask seniors what they thought of this as an issue in the coming elections, and it really scored very low. About 8 percent said it would be their top issue in the fall. That's below things like the war in Iraq and terrorism and gas prices and immigration. But it's also below things like corruption in Washington. And remember, this is just seniors we're talking about, not the entire population.

HANSEN: Of course, the election is not until the fall. Couldn't there be a change between now and then?

ROVNER: There could indeed and one of the big sort of unknowns is how many people are going to fall into what's called the donut hole in this benefit. Most people - interestingly, they asked whether people were in a plan that had this gap and it's a gap between coverage and coverage stops when you've spent a certain amount and doesn't pick up again unless you've spent a whole lot more. About a third of people said that they're in a plan that has a gap. Actually, it's a much higher number. So there's a lot of people who are in a plan with a gap don't know it.

In a separate study, the Kaiser Foundation said about seven million people are going to fall into this gap, which means at some point probably in September and October, they're going to go to the pharmacy and pick up their drugs and discover that they have to pay the whole amount. Instead of 20 or 30 or 40 dollars, they're going to be charged 250 or 300 dollars and a lot of them are going to be not very happy. So, this 80 percent that we see are satisfied now may not be that satisfied come November.

HANSEN: NPR Health Policy Correspondent Julie Rovner. Julie, thanks a lot.

ROVNER: You're very welcome.

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