With less than six months remaining before it goes into effect, one in three seniors say they now find Medicare's new prescription-drug program a bit easier to swallow.

Researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation show that for the first time seniors are as likely to say they have a favorable impression of the Medicare drug benefit plan as an unfavorable one.

Passed by Congress in 2003, the program is one of the biggest changes ever made to Medicare. On Jan. 1, 2005, Medicare will start paying part of seniors' prescription drug costs.

Medicare's prescription benefit — known as Part D — will pay 75 percent of most beneficiaries' drug costs up to $2,250 per year. That's after beneficiaries cover a $250 deductible and about $37 per month in premiums. Seniors are then responsible for all of their drug costs up to $3,600 in out-of-pocket spending, after which the program pays 95 percent of their costs.

Medicare at 40: What's Changed?

Results of National Survey

To obtain a nationally representative sampling, the Princeton Survey Research Association conducted telephone interviews of 1,205 adults aged 18 and up. Three hundred of the respondents were 65 and older.

The poll was conducted Aug. 4-8, 2005.

The survey shows that 32 percent of seniors now view the Medicare's prescription drug program positively. An equal number view it negatively. However, favorable views are up since April, when only 21 percent expressed positive impressions of the plan.

What accounts for the change of heart by many seniors? In large part, it may be simply that they understand the program better.

Overall, 37 percent now say they understand it "very" or "somewhat" well; that's up from 29 percent who felt that way in April.

Yet many seniors said they remained in the dark as to the program's actual benefits.

Six in 10 seniors said they didn't understand the program well or at all.

Less than 4 in 10 said the new drug plan will be "very" or "somewhat" helpful to them personally; the same percentage of seniors held that opinion in April.

Pres. Bush Promotes Medicare Drug Benefit

How Many Plan to Enroll?

More seniors reported that they planned to enroll in the prescription drug plan. More than 22 percent said they plan to enroll, which is up from 9 percent in April.

Thirty-three percent said they have no plans to enroll, while another 40 percent of seniors surveyed said they haven't heard enough to decide.

"The first test for the drug benefit will come in the next six months as the program launches and seniors begin to enroll, but that early experience will not tell the full story. It will take several years before we see how well beneficiaries navigate the new system and how satisfied they are with it, how much drug prices go up and down, and whether drug plan formularies are adequate or become too restrictive over time," writes Drew Altman, the foundation's president and CEO, in a news release.

"Only with experience will we be able to make a reasonable judgment about this new law," Altman writes.

Making the Right Medicare Decision

By Patti Connor, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: News release, Kaiser Family Foundation. USAToday, July 25, 2005. WebMD Medical News: "Bush Starts to Promote Medicare Drug Benefit."