Medicare Part D Is Working for Seniors

Since its enactment 10 years ago, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, also known as Part D, has been one of the federal government's greatest successes.
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Since its enactment 10 years ago, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, also known as Part D, has been one of the federal government's greatest successes. By just about any metric, Part D has exceeded expectations. More than 30 million Americans have affordable access to medications through the program. Overall costs are more than 40 percent less than initial estimates, and average monthly premiums for beneficiaries in 2014 are expected to be just $31 -- nearly half of the initial forecast when the Medicare Modernization Act was signed into law. Most importantly, seniors have unprecedented choice when it comes to the prescription drugs necessary to live a healthy life.

While all these facts highlight Part D's success, a new set of numbers released this week underscore the popularity and the true importance of the program.

According to a new survey of Part D beneficiaries conducted by KRC Research, 90 percent of seniors are satisfied with the prescription drug program. The satisfaction rate among minority older adults is even higher -- 95 percent of African American and 94 percent of Hispanic beneficiaries are satisfied with the program. While these top-line numbers are sure to get the most attention, the underlying poll results demonstrate why the program is so popular.

Two-thirds of seniors said they would be unable to fill all their prescriptions without Part D, and 62 percent would likely cut back or stop taking their medicine. It should come as no surprise, then, that 96 percent of seniors said Part D gives them peace of mind.

These numbers are tremendous, and are in line with previous Part D satisfaction surveys. But despite this consistent track record of success, some in Washington are once again calling for fundamental changes to Part D. These proposals would undermine a program tens of millions of seniors across the country have come to rely on.

One change being floated would offer "rebates" for certain prescription medications covered by Part D. These rebates would not lower drug costs for seniors, nor would the rebates even redirect savings toward strengthening Medicare. The rebates go straight to the Treasury and not to seniors.

In fact, a number of experts predict that this rebate system might actually increase monthly costs for seniors by as much as 40 percent. With many seniors living on fixed incomes, any increase in monthly premiums is money that cannot be spent on other necessities.

While Congress should avoid wholesale changes to Part D, there are ways the program can be improved without adversely affecting beneficiaries. The KRC survey found that many Part D recipients were unaware of resources available to help switch between plans. Doing more to connect seniors -- especially low-income seniors -- with resources and improve overall program efficiency would further improve beneficiaries' health, save money and make Part D even more effective.

Connecting beneficiaries with affordable access to prescription medications has a positive effect on our nation's finances, too. Patients that have better access to their prescribed medications not only feel better, they have substantially lower overall health care costs. In fact, NEHI estimates that patients that fail to adhere to their prescribed medication regimen cost the health care system as much as $290 billion every year.

There will be plenty of discussion in the coming days (and possibly weeks) about the federal government's financial obligations. As Congress and the Obama administration work to find solutions to the debt ceiling and other issues, Part D and the millions of seniors who rely on it must not fall victim to irrational cuts. Ten years after enactment, Part D has helped tens of millions of seniors access the high-quality health care they deserve. It has performed too well to be undermined by politics or misguided policies that will cost much more than they claim to save.

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