Most seniors unaware healthcare reform closes Medicare's 'donut hole'

Most seniors enrolled in Medicare's prescription drug benefit don't know that the new healthcare reform law closes Part D's coverage gap, according to poll results released Tuesday. 

The findings are bad news for Democrats, who are hoping that seniors — among the most reliable voters in midterm elections — will flock to the polls next month in support of the party who backed the new benefits.

Yet just 20 percent of Part D beneficiaries are aware that the law cuts the cost of name-brand drug in half next year through the donut hole, according to the survey, conducted by KRC Research for the Medicare Today coalition, an advocacy group.

In addition, 72 percent said they didn't know that the new reform law incrementally closes the donut hole each year after 2011 until the gap is eliminated, pollsters found. Finally, fewer than half of Part D beneficiaries (46 percent) are aware that seniors caught in the donut hole this year will receive a $250 check.

Mary R. Grealy, co-chair of Medicare Today, said the findings are indication that advocates and policymakers have their work cut out if they hope for seniors to understand what the new law does.

"Seniors on limited incomes need to plan their spending and budget their resources and it’s important they know about these changes," Grealy said in a statement. "Congress and the nation’s pharmaceutical companies have taken significant steps to reduce out-of-pocket spending for these ‘donut hole’ seniors and we need to raise awareness of these changes."

The donut hole has been the most controversial element of Part D since the program was created in 2003. In 2010, it works like this: Part D beneficiaries pay 25 percent of their drug costs until total expenses hit $2,830. At that point, seniors are responsible for the full cost of the next $3,610 worth of drugs. After total annual costs hit $6,440, the government picks 95 percent of the tab for the rest of the year.

Under the new healthcare reform law:

• Seniors caught in the donut hole in 2010 get a $250 check to help cover drug costs.

• In 2011, name-brand drugs will be half-price through the donut hole.

• In 2020, the coverage gap will be closed altogether. 

Roughly 31 percent of seniors said they themselves have hit the coverage gap, according to Tuesday's poll. 

The survey was based on the responses of 1,243 Medicare beneficiaries.