As Congress considers privatizing parts of Medicare, a new study suggests that seniors want to keep the program under federal government control.
Seniors are skeptical of possible changes to the current program, especially increasing the role of private health plans in Medicare, according to a survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, Calif.
Of seniors 65 and older, 63% said they prefer to receive their Medicare benefits through the current government-run program, while only 19% said they want to receive them through a private health plan. About 17% said they didn't know what they preferred.
The original Bush administration plan to reform Medicare called for beneficiaries to receive prescription drug benefits only if they enrolled in a private health plan. While the administration has backed off its stand and current bills in Congress call for drug coverage within traditional Medicare, private health plans still retain a central role in the reform effort.
Regarding a prescription drug benefit, seniors in large part are satisfied with traditional Medicare, with 63% saying they prefer a drug benefit to be added to Medicare. Some 23% said they preferred the private plan model for receiving drugs, and 15% said they were unsure which they preferred.
As the administration moved away from its original plan and congressional Republicans crafted their Medicare reform bills, such sentiment clearly played a role in the design of the bills, said Drew Altman, the Kaiser foundation's president.
"The reaction of seniors is playing a very important role in the (decision) by policymakers," he said. "There is a blinking red light from seniors on moving Medicare to private insurers."
Democrats as well as Republicans are losing trust with the public over Medicare reform, in part because legislative efforts in the past have gone nowhere and also because legislators have not been clear about the details of reform, according to the survey results.
"This is a debate to confuse rather than clarify," said Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a Washington-based survey research firm. As Congress seeks ways to increase drug coverage while keeping Medicare solvent, there may be a disconnect between what Congress is aiming to do and what seniors want-lower drug prices, Garin said.
If seniors already are wary of current plans to reform the program now, they may become outraged when reform becomes effective in 2006 and the results of new legislation hit them in their pocketbooks, survey presenters said.
Critics said premiums and deductibles for Medicare beneficiaries could rise sharply when the legislation takes effect.
"Passage of this law is just the beginning of the debate," Altman said.