Seniors Wary of New Medicare

Published February 1, 2004

President George W. Bush praised the new Medicare legislation he signed into law on December 8, saying it represents a “victory for all of America’s seniors.”

But a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted just days before the bill’s signing showed the nation’s seniors are very sensitive to changes in Medicare … and wary of the new law’s broad reform provisions.

According to the poll, conducted December 5-7, a small plurality of senior citizens over 65 supports the prescription drug benefits law. But there is more opposition than support among seniors for the broader changes in Medicare. Few senior citizens believe the Medicare reform measure will help them financially, and a majority feels the plan does not go far enough to help them cope with drug costs.

Taking the Pulse

Previous Gallup polling found 73 percent of Americans aged 50 and older, and 84 percent age 65 and older, use prescription drugs. The average person 65 and older who uses prescription drugs pays out-of-pocket costs of $137 a month for drugs, or $1,644 a year.

Polling conducted in 2003 showed Americans of all ages support the general idea of a prescription drug benefit. A June Gallup Poll showed 76 percent support a bill that would “spend $400 billion over the next 10 years to create a new Medicare program that would help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs.” Seniors and younger Americans were just as likely to approve. The Gallup results pretty much square with the findings of other polls.

But those polls were conducted before the details of the current Medicare reform measure were finalized and known. The December CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed much more subdued support for the specific bill than there had been for the general proposal to cover prescription drugs under Medicare.

Worry over Complexities

Senior citizens are clearly interested in the new legislation and have been following news accounts of its passage. The December poll showed 73 percent of respondents 65 and older have read or heard at least a moderate amount about the new bill–much higher than the percentage of those under age 65 who have been paying attention.

Additionally, when asked about AARP’s position on the bill, 61 percent of seniors recalled that AARP supported the plan, while only 10 percent thought AARP had opposed it.

These findings suggest the senior population is well-informed on the reform measure. The drop in support for the legislation, compared to the greater support for the general notion of prescription drug benefits covered by Medicare, likely reflects seniors’ concerns about some of the law’s specific provisions.

It is also evident realistic opinions about the real impact of the law may not be available for years. Most of the provisions of the legislation won’t take effect until 2006, and it may take that long for those affected to grasp what Medicare reform really means to them.

The almost-700-page bill is exceedingly complex, involving a complicated mix of deductibles, exclusions, and amounts above and below which drug costs won’t be reimbursed. The new law also makes numerous changes to Medicare, well beyond the new prescription drug benefit.

Previous polling showed seniors are less likely than those under 65 to feel Medicare needs a major overhaul, and more likely to believe changes made to the program may do as much to harm the system as good.

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll was conducted December 5-7, 2003. Telephone interviews were conducted with 1,083 adults, aged 18 and older, including more than 173 randomly selected Americans age 65 and older and an additional 79 senior citizens who had previously participated in national Gallup polls in 2003 and agreed to be re-contacted by Gallup for future polls. Complete details are available online at