PRESIDENTIAL RACE Many seniors don't like drug law

The number is high enough to affect the election if it were held today.
WASHINGTON -- Almost half of Medicare recipients dislike the new prescription drug law, and nearly three in 10 seniors and disabled persons say the issue will influence their vote for president, according to a national public opinion survey released Tuesday.
The survey suggests that there are "maybe a half-million seniors" who might swing their votes to Democratic candidate John F. Kerry and an additional "1 million to 2 million whose votes might be up for grabs on this issue," said Drew E. Altman, president and chief executive officer of the private nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Could be factor
Given those numbers, if the race between Kerry and President Bush remains close, seniors' views of the Medicare law could be "a decisive factor" in the Nov. 2 election, said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The national survey of 1,223 Medicare beneficiaries, conducted by the Kaiser foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health shortly before last month's Democratic National Convention, indicates that 47 percent of Medicare recipients have an unfavorable view of the law, while 26 percent have a favorable view. Eight months after Bush signed the measure into law, one in four participants in the government health-care program for seniors and disabled people say they do not know enough about it to have an opinion.
The survey results are the latest in a series of indicators suggesting that the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers, who worked hard for passage of the reform measure last November, are reaping few, if any, political benefits from it.
While conventional political wisdom holds that "something done is better than nothing, that isn't what the results would suggest today," Blendon said.
Instead, he said, opposition to the Medicare law has energized Democratic seniors, whose votes could help Democratic House candidates in close races.
Bush administration officials said they were not troubled by the survey results.
'Encouraging signs'
"We find a lot of encouraging signs in this poll," said Kevin Keane, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Despite "all the political demagoguery that has taken place," Keane said, "the survey shows that seniors believe the new benefits will be helpful ... and they want to know more about them. They don't want those benefits taken away. That's a very positive sign."
According to the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points among seniors and plus or minus 10 percentage points among the disabled on Medicare, two of three beneficiaries want Congress to go back and improve the law.
Specifically, those who disapprove of the law say that its benefits are not generous enough, that it is too complicated and that private health plans and drug companies stand to benefit more than the nation's 41 million Medicare recipients.
Only three in 10 of those on Medicare believe that the law's benefits -- partial coverage of prescription drug costs for those who choose to participate in that program, a voluntary prescription discount card available until the drug benefit takes effect in 2006, and new coverage for some preventive health services -- will help them personally.
By overwhelming numbers, survey respondents support two measures to lower drug prices that are opposed by the Bush administration and a majority of Republican lawmakers and supported by Kerry and most Democrats.
Fully 80 percent favor allowing the government to negotiate with manufacturers for lower prices, an action that the law expressly prohibits. And 79 percent support changing the law to allow the legal importation of lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada.
Rejection of argument
Strong majorities clearly reject the administration's arguments against importation, with 66 percent saying it would not reduce drug quality, 62 percent saying it would not expose Americans to unsafe drugs, and 71 percent saying it would not reduce manufacturers' commitment to drug research and development.
The Medicare law required the administration to establish a task force to research the issue of reimportation, so called because it largely involves the return of drugs that were manufactured in the United States and sent to other countries. The task force held several meetings earlier this year and is working on a report that will tell Congress whether it is possible to safely import prescription drugs from other countries and what new government resources and processes would be needed.

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