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Seniors Look to Doctors For Medicare Drug Info

Physicians are not aware of the details regarding what new things Medicare is covering

Older patients are choosing their physician over the phone or electronic resources to help them understand the complexities of the new prescription drug law.

Many beneficiaries don’t understand what the new law does, and many are not comfortable looking for information online, Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said during the annual conference of the National Academy of Social Insurance.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll of more than 1,200 adults, only 13% said they understood the new law very well. More than half (53%) said they didn’t have enough information about the law to understand how it would impact them personally. The poll was conducted in December 2004 and included responses from 237 adults aged 65 years and older and 953 adults aged 18-64.

In a question specifically addressed to seniors, respondents were asked what sources they would turn to for help. The majority (38%) said that they would ask for their physician’s counsel in deciding whether to enroll in a Medicare drug plan, Mr. Altman said.

Seniors also cited Medicare offices, Web sites, or phone number (31%); pharmacists (30%); and health insurance companies (25%) as consultation sources for the new drug benefit.

Upon closer look, however, it doesn’t seem like the Internet and the phone are popular venues to get information. Forty-three percent of the seniors who responded to the poll said that they had never heard of the 1-800 Medicare number, and 42% were aware of it but have never used it.

Only 6% of the respondents said they had heard of Medicare.gov, and 39% said they’d never heard of the Web site.
For those aged 65 and older, 73% said they have never gone online, and 85% said they’ve never gotten assistance from a friend or family member to visit an Internet site on their behalf to get information about Medicare.

Most of the information on the Web site isn’t access friendly to the average beneficiary, Roslyn Taylor, M.D., a family physician in Savannah, Ga., said in an interview. “Many of the seniors do not have or know how to use computers.” Those patients that did “told me that even if they went on the Web site they still were confused.”

Thirty-seven percent of the seniors who responded to the survey said that they would prefer to get their Medicare information from mailings, and 25% said that they wouldn’t mind obtaining the information in person from Medicare or Social Security offices. Only 18% cited toll-free telephone hotlines as a preferred method.

Physicians themselves may need a quick tutorial on the new benefits. “I think that a lot of physicians are not aware of the details regarding what new things Medicare is covering—and under what specific rules,” said Colette Willins, M.D., a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Westlake, Ohio.

Older beneficiaries seemed to be more aware of specific benefits. Respectively, 86% and 67% of beneficiaries aged 65 and older knew about the discount drug card, and a $600 subsidy on the costs of drugs for low-income people. Only 27% of beneficiaries aged 18-64 were aware of the subsidy.

Senior respondents to the Kaiser poll seemed divided on their reported plans to enroll in the drug benefit in 2006. Nineteen percent said they would, 37% said they would not, and another 37% said they hadn’t heard enough about the new benefit to decide.

Seniors who responded to the Kaiser survey thought low-income people on Medicare would benefit the most from the new law, although fewer respondents thought it would help the typical Medicare beneficiary.