Survey highlights senior perceptions of drug benefits

By William Langbein

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A two-year, online survey from a healthcare research group indicates seniors may be gradually accepting higher payments for prescription drug coverage.

Managed Care Online (MCOL), a market research company that serves consumers, insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), conducted the survey through its Medicare HMO Web site between May 2000 and December 2001. About 750 individuals chose to participate in the online survey, which asked detailed questions regarding actual and desired prescription drug benefits, willingness to pay additional monthly premiums for desired drug benefits, and overall satisfaction with drug plans offered by insurers.

Most participants in the survey were or had been members of Medicare HMOs, but MCOL did not conduct a scientific sample of members enrolled in plans with different types of prescription drug benefits. All responses were submitted voluntarily. The research group also included responses from other applicable non-HMO populations in order to compare perceptions.

After examining the responses, MCOL found satisfaction levels with prescription drug coverage dropped materially from 2000 to 2001, with the corresponding proportion shifting from satisfied to "not sure." Consumer confusion about their level of covered drug benefits also increased correspondingly from 2000 to 2001.

At the same time, more seniors expressed a willingness to accept steeper conditions for drug coverage, MCOL CEO Clive Riddle told Reuters Health.

"A core [about 15%] of the respondents believe they are entitled to drug coverage essentially without co-payments," said Riddle. "But as health plans reduced benefits and increased the cost of coverage, we saw a shift and more people responded they would accept conditions that involved a higher [personal] cost."

By the end of 2001, 53% of the seniors surveyed said that they were willing to pay more than $25 in additional per month premiums to receive their desired prescription drug benefit level, and 18% would commit to $50 per month.

MCOL also found the correlation between prescription drug benefit coverage and overall plan satisfaction was strong. Nearly 83% of those satisfied with their health plan overall also were satisfied with the prescription drug benefit, while 66.7% of those dissatisfied with their drug benefit also were dissatisfied with the plan overall.

Benefit and satisfaction levels also vary widely by region, according to MCOL. The Pacific and Mountain regions have higher benefit maximums than the rest of the country.

MCOL has sold segments of the survey to managed care organizations, insurers and PBMs, said Riddle.

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