WASHINGTON – Most people, particularly senior citizens, say they are having a hard time understanding the new Medicare prescription drug program, an AP-Ipsos poll found.
The drug benefit requires people to choose from among dozens of competing private insurance plans. Along with senior citizens, those most likely to acknowldge difficulties live in rural areas or are college graduates.
"I pretty much completed a master's degree in psychology and I can't understand it," said Raymond Lloyd, a Republican-leaning retiree from Silt, Colo. "For the elderly who don't have their full faculties and the poor people who are not well-educated, God help 'em."
More than half, 52 percent, of respondents say they think the program that began enrolling people on Jan. 1 is tough to understand.
Two-thirds of older people surveyed and two-thirds of those who have signed up say they are confused by the program, which is intended to help many save more on their prescription drugs.
A third said they had not decided what they think of the new program and 16 percent said they have little trouble figuring out the program.
One who finds it easy to understand is Kathy Herndon of Savannah, Ga., who has worked for three decades in a dentist's office.
"I'm sure it would be confusing unless you're used to dealing with it," she said.
The poorest people in the program have a specific plan chosen at first for them; those with higher incomes have to pick one. People who struggle with a selection often turn to their pharmacists.
Marlene Brantley, a pharmacist from Arnaudville, La., said that serving Hurricane Katrina evacuees seemed like "a walk in the park" when compared with helping Medicare beneficiaries in recent weeks.
She said there are too many plans and too many lists of available drugs, forcing pharmacists to spend a lot of time trying to determine if people are eligible for a particular plan.
"If we don't get help, I see us all throwing up our hands and quitting," Brantley said at a Capitol Hill hearing last week sponsored by Democrats.
Soon after enrollment opened, it became apparent there was widespread confusion, so the government increased from 150 to 4,000 the number of workers at a pharmacy help line. Questions also can go through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- 1-800-Medicare or http://www.cms.hhs.gov -- or local aging agencies.
The public's understanding of the program is one of several problems that have plagued the Bush administration's initiative.
Tens of thousands of elderly poor people have had trouble getting their medicine after they were canceled from Medicaid prescription drug coverage but not properly listed as eligible in the new program.
"Most of these people are vulnerable and frail," said Jean Finberg of the National Senior Citizens Law Center. "Our government is not protecting these people, and the new plan is too complicated."
Medicare spokesman Gary Karr said millions of people are getting their prescription drugs through the new program, despite the glitches.
"We certainly acknowledge there have been some problems," Karr said. "This is a $30-$40 billion program. It's a big transition for many people."
About 3.6 million people have enrolled, in addition to the 6.4 million elderly poor shifted from Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor, that had provided their drug coverage.
The government aims to have 28 million to 30 million -- including the Medicaid transfers -- enrolled in the Medicare drug program by the end of 2006, Karr said. He said people will like the program more as they realize it can save them money.
But the public has doubts about the savings now.
Of those people who have enrolled in the program or have family members enrolled, six in 10 in the poll said they have noticed no significant savings.
Half of the Republicans surveyed say the drug program is hard to understand while six in 10 Democrats say they feel that way.
For 63-year-old Democrat Glenda Bozeman of Blountstown, Fla., that confusion is compounded by her overall doubts about the program.
"A large number of people are upset about this," she said. "I'm really suspicious about who this is going to help."