A Pity There’s No Cure For Confusion

As if the pharmaceuticals industry didn’t have enough trouble, old folks remain baffled by the new Medicare program that would help them buy more of the drug companies’ wares. Enrollment for the prescription-drug benefit began last week, but a survey of seniors by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health finds just one in five saying they definitely plan to sign up (see the chart below). Even among people age 65-plus who now have no coverage for prescription drugs, the plan-to-enroll figure was a lackluster 28 percent. The underlying problem is that just 14 percent of seniors claim to understand the program “very well,” with another 21 percent saying they understand it “somewhat well.” By contrast, 25 percent said they understand it “not too well” and 36 percent “not well at all.” Since this past April, there’s been only a modest gain (from 27 percent then to 36 percent now) in the proportion of seniors who feel they have enough information on the prescription-drug benefit to understand how it will affect them personally. Whatever the advantage of ample consumer choice in other venues, it looks like a dud in this context. When the survey’s respondents were told that most Medicare recipients will be able to choose among 40 different prescription-drug plans under the new program, 22 percent said this multiplicity of choice “is helpful and provides an opportunity to find the best plan”; 73 percent said it “makes it confusing and difficult to pick the best plan.”