MEdicare Beneficiaries Do Not Get the Information They Need From the Internet:
CMS Must Provide Important Information About Medicare Prescription Drug Plans
Directly to Beneficiaries


September 30, 2004 Contact:       Judith Stein, Esq.
jstein @ medicareadvocacy.org
(860) 456-7790

Congress, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and Medicare advocates agree that beneficiaries should get information about their Medicare prescription drug options. People eligible for the new drug program that begins in 2006 will need to know each private plan available to them, how much each plan will cost them in premiums and co-payments, the benefits the plans will provide, the drugs they will cover, and how to enroll. Once people choose and enroll in a plan, they will need to know what changes the plan to its drug formulary.

Unfortunately, Congress did not give prescription drug plans much direction in the new law about how to provide this information to consumers, other than to require plans to make information on changes in their drug formularies available through the internet. Likewise, in the preamble to the proposed regulations to implement the new Medicare law, recently published by CMS, the agency discusses mailing information about formulary changes to plan enrollees, but the actual proposed regulations only require the plans sponsors to “make the information available”.

CMS also states in the preamble to the proposed regulations that about half of people 65 or older regularly use the internet.  This is an overstatement by the most generous of margins.  According to a March 2004 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, only 22% of Medicare beneficiaries report using the internet.  At best, one survey found that 37% of Medicare beneficiaries use the internet, but this is only true for those with annual incomes over $30,000 (Kaiser Family Foundation, September 2004) – and the median annual income of Medicare beneficiaries is $20,600.  (Kaiser Family Foundation)

Internet use further significantly declines when use is broken down by education and race of current and future beneficiaries.  The Pew survey found that 62% of  older people who are connected to the Internet have at least some college education, compared to 35% of all elders.  The same report found that 22% of African-Americans and 32% of English-speaking Hispanics age 55-64 use the internet, compared to 58% of whites.  And while 83% of whites age 18-24 say they are connected to the internet, only 68% of African-Americans and 70% of Hispanics report that they use the internet.

Further, of those beneficiaries who do tend to use the internet, and have incomes above $30,000 per year, over 40% had never heard of the Medicare website, www.medicare.gov. So even if beneficiaries use the internet they are still largely unaware of the site that CMS uses, and proposes to use, as the major source of information about the drug card and future Part D drug program.

The Center for Medicare Advocacy did its own survey in August and September, 2004 which confirms the Pew Center’s findings. Of the 263 people we spoke to, only 13% use the internet. Many made the point that not only can’t they afford a computer, they also can’t afford monthly internet access fees. Only 13 of the 263 had ever looked at the Medicare website. The age range of the people we spoke to was 54 – 93.

Unless there is a dramatic upsurge in internet use by the Medicare population, combined with a highly successful outreach campaign, the internet does not properly inform beneficiaries. If CMS and drug plans rely on the internet as their means of distributing information, they will fail to reach the majority of older Medicare beneficiaries.


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