Survey Refutes Criticism of Medicare Drug Plan

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006; 3:33 PM

A majority of senior citizens in a recent poll say they had no trouble using -- or signing up for -- the controversial 10-week-old Medicare prescription drug plan, health insurance officials said today.

The survey of more than 800 seniors differs from assertions by politicians and health and senior citizen advocacy groups that many Medicare enrollees have had difficulty choosing a drug plan from among the dozens that are being offered.

"The data are very encouraging," Karen Ignagni, chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the trade group that commissioned the survey, said at an afternoon briefing in Washington. " . . . What seniors are saying is this program is working for them. It's making a difference."

Advocacy groups said they were deeply skeptical of the results of the survey, which was done for AHIP by Alexandria-based Ayres, McHenry & Associates.

"The HMO industry and its Washington lobbyists may be the least trusted sources of honest data in the country," Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "The HMO industry will spend millions to protect this cash cow that the Bush Administration and Congressional leadership gave it."

The voluntary drug plan, conceived by the Bush administration and approved by Congress in 2003, offers Medicare enrollees a prescription drug benefit for the first time. The drug plans are directed by the government's Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which, in turn, contracts with private insurers -- AHIP members such as UnitedHealth Group -- to provide the benefits.

Critics of the voluntary plan say it has bewildered many seniors -- some of them frail and unable to make decisions of their own.

"This survey doesn't square with the reality of what we have found, going to senior centers to explain this benefit," Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said in an interview. "Seniors are experiencing enormous frustration, not only having to sort through three or four dozen plans but finding that each plan has different premiums, different drugs that are covered and different pharmacies that dispense the drugs."

The AHIP survey -- taken from March 6-11 -- shows that eight out of 10 seniors who enrolled themselves in the drug plan experienced no problems using the new benefit.

According to AHIP, three out of five seniors reported they have saved money under the plan, compared to their previous costs, and four out of five said the plans they chose covered the drugs that they needed.

"When you get out of Washington and listen to seniors, you learn that seniors are saving and that the vast majority are not experiencing problems," Ignagni said.

The survey queried 408 seniors who enrolled themselves in the new drug plan and another 401 low-income seniors who were automatically enrolled because they are also eligible for Medicaid benefits.

The survey reported that 35 percent of "dual eligible" seniors -- those who get Medicare and Medicaid benefits -- are skeptical about the motives behind those who "attack" the new program. These seniors said politicians who have criticized the plan are motivated by a "desire to score political points," according to the survey

Ignagni called this result "disturbing."

The survey also said eight out of 10 "dual eligibles" said the new benefit covers the drugs they need.

Pollack, of Families USA, said this finding means that 20 percent on those surveyed are not getting the drugs they need.

"This shows that these people -- the poor of the poor -- are worse off today than the were before, when they got their drugs from Medicaid," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company