updated 1/23/2006 12:19:50 PM ET 2006-01-23T17:19:50

Confusion by consumers may be one of the biggest problems at the startup of the new Medicare prescription drug program, an AP-Ipsos poll suggests.

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Most people find the new Medicare prescription drug program hard to navigate, especially older people and those who have enrolled to get the drug benefit.

The program requires people to choose from among dozens of competing private insurance plans. Along with seniors and those who have enrolled, those most likely to acknowledge difficulties live in rural areas or are college graduates.

More than half, 52 percent, of respondents say they think the program that began enrolling people on Jan. 1 is tough to understand, the poll found.

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 money on their prescription drugs.

“We’re getting a pretty steady stream of questions,” said insurance counselor Edith Goodin Thompson, of the Aging and Disability Resource Center for Broward County in south Florida.

"The typical call is 'I need a plan. I have gone on my computer and done the research and I don’t understand.' "

The multiple plans and varied rules can confuse the well educated.

“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.”

Too many plans, lists
One-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 in 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 last week at a Democratic-sponsored forum on Capitol Hill.

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 or 1-800-Medicare, or local aging agencies.

The public’s understanding of the program is one of several problems that have plagued the Bush administration initiative.

No significant savings
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 for 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.

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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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