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Medicare Drug Plan Marks Improve

Elderly patients are warming up to the prescription drug benefit that begins next year for Medicare recipients, a survey shows.

Even so, the number of people who plan on not enrolling in a drug plan exceeds the number who say they will enroll, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The good news for the Bush administration and other backers of the prescription drug benefit was that for the first time since the foundation began tracking attitudes about the benefit, people were as likely to have a favorable view of it as they were to have an unfavorable view.

"The positive drum beat has caught up with the negative one," said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which specializes in health research. "But on an individual basis, most seniors still can't answer the big question: 'What does it mean for me?"'

In the survey, which was conducted earlier this month, the percentages of people who viewed the drug benefit favorably and unfavorably stood at 32 percent each. The remaining 36 percent said they didn't have enough information to give an opinion.

When the foundation began its survey in February 2004, the numbers were 55 percent unfavorable and 17 percent favorable.

"The poll is definitely showing that more knowledge means more favorable views," said Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

About 1,200 adults participated in the telephone survey, including 300 respondents age 65 and older. The margin of error for the questions asked only of the elderly was plus or minus 6 percentage points.

The prescription drug benefit kicks in Jan. 1. About 43 million beneficiaries will be able to choose from two or more private plans that offer drug coverage.

Enrollees will pay a monthly premium averaging about $32 a month, but the amount of the premium will vary from region to region, and millions of poor people will pay no premium. Beneficiaries will also have a $250 deductible, meaning they will have to pay that amount for their prescriptions before the drug plan covers expenses. Again, millions of poor beneficiaries will not have any deductible.

Members of the Bush administration, including the president himself, have made stops throughout the country in recent weeks touting the benefit. Congress also allocated about $300 million to an awareness campaign.

On that front, the Kaiser survey shows there is still much work to do. More than two-thirds of respondents described their understanding of the benefit as "not too well" or "not well at all." Meanwhile, only 31 percent said they understood the benefit "very well" or "somewhat well."

On another question, when senior citizens were asked to think ahead about whether they would enroll in a Medicare drug plan, 33 percent said they would not. About 22 percent said they would enroll, and 40 percent said they had not heard enough to decide.

But McClellan said many Medicare beneficiaries already have prescription drug coverage through their former employer or through their former union, so those numbers are not disturbing to him.

"I would expect a lot of people to stay where they are for their coverage," McClellan said.

AARP officials said they have seen a shift in attitude similar to what the Kaiser poll indicated.

"I would guess the awareness needle is continuing to climb," said George Keleman of the AARP.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said Wednesday that he believes the government's outreach effort would improve with some changes to the official Medicare Web site,, which he said is woefully inadequate. For example, he said, the only explanation of the benefit was on the fifth link down the page, in a format that requires additional software to read.

"At this critical time, CMS should have a user-friendly, informative and easy to understand Medicare Web page," Lautenberg said in a letter to McClellan. "Unfortunately, the only web at the current Medicare site is a web of confusion."

A CMS official said he had not seen the senator's letter, but the agency would consider his suggestions for improving the site. The official said the agency has had numerous organizations look at the site to suggest ways it could be improved.

McClellan said the Web site will include new features in the fall that will allow beneficiaries to find drug plans that best fit their needs.

"It will be very interactive," he said.