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The Medicare Drug Benefit: What Happened?
Karlyn Bowman, American Enterprise Institute, 10-19-06

As Congressional races stumble to a close, Bowman summarizes the performance of the new Medicare Drug Benefit across a number of different surveys to see how the benefit may be affecting the election prospects of the Republican party.

In early 2006, a lot of Democrats assumed that Medicare Part D—the prescription drug benefit passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Bush—would turn into a big campaign issue, with seniors up in arms about the plan's allegedly underwhelming benefits and overly confusing paperwork.

In fact, earlier this year, Democratic pollsters with Democracy Corps put out an alert titled "Prescription Drug Plan: Prospect of a Voter Revolt." The alert argued that although the benefit was "already unpopular," Democrats had the opportunity "to raise opposition to [the plan] to new heights."

Now it's fall, and while Republicans have a lot of problems to contend with as the elections approach, it appears that the new prescription drug benefit is not one of them. What follows is a review of reactions to the new benefit by the public and, more importantly, by seniors.

There's no question that the plan inspired a lot of skepticism initially. People liked the idea in general, as shown in responses to a question Pew has asked four times since 2003. In Pew's latest survey—September 2006—52 percent said they approved of the "way Medicare will now cover prescription drug costs," with 30 percent disapproving. In polls conducted in December 2005, and January and April 2006, 51 percent to 58 percent of seniors told NBC News/Wall Street Journal interviewers that the plan would be good for seniors who didn't have coverage.

Americans did worry that the prescription drug plan would be difficult to understand. Of those who knew something about it in a December 2005 CBS News/New York Times poll, 41 percent said that from what they had heard, the plan was somewhat difficult to understand. Another 32 percent thought it was very difficult. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll in April, 38 percent of seniors said they felt they knew a great deal or a good amount about the new prescription drug program, but 61 percent said they knew only some or hardly anything about it.

But most seniors, despite these concerns, didn't have problems signing up. Of those questioned in the April ABC/Post poll who already were enrolled, 74 percent reported that it was very or somewhat easy to sign up, and 24 percent said it was somewhat or very difficult. A May CBS News poll gave a slightly different impression: 61 percent said it was very or fairly easy, while 33 percent said it was fairly or very difficult.

Project FDA.
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