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Are Seniors Warming to the Health Care Law?

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

December 22, 2010 -- Medicare officials again were touting the benefits of the health care law for seniors—and a recent poll shows their attempts might be having some success in winning over what has been a highly skeptical segment of the population.

A month-by-month tracking poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) has consistently found that seniors with an unfavorable view of the law outnumber those with a favorable view. But in the December poll, the percentage of people older than 65 who answered "unfavorable" when asked about their opinion of the law hit its lowest point since the measure's passage—40 percent.

Seniors have been wary of the law in large part because of its reductions in Medicare spending for provider services—though supporters say the reductions won't harm beneficiaries—and cuts in the Medicare Advantage private insurance program.

To combat that perception, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) spent $3 million this summer on an ad campaign featuring TV star Andy Griffith praising the new law, a move met with intense criticism from Republicans.

In addition, Obama administration officials throughout the year have repeatedly talked up new benefits for seniors, such as the $250 checks in 2010 for those who hit the prescription drug "doughnut hole," reduced prices for prescription drugs next year for those in the doughnut hole and efforts to root out Medicare fraud and waste.

On Wednesday, CMS Administrator Donald M. Berwick in a conference call with reporters pounded away at the health care message. He urged seniors to sign up for a Medicare prescription health or drug plan prior to the Dec. 31 deadline for open enrollment. "This year, as a result of the new health care law, there's more in it for people with Medicare," he said. Free annual wellness checkups are on the way in 2011, he added.

The administration's PR effort may be working.

In Kaiser's December tracking poll, the percentage of seniors surveyed who said they had an "unfavorable" view of the law showed a clear decline. In April, 56 percent had an unfavorable view, and it hit 53 percent in August. By December, it shrank to 40 percent.

The percentage with a favorable view has stayed more stable. It was at 34 percent in December compared with 32 percent in April.

The tracking poll also showed that many more seniors seem undecided now when it comes to what to think about the law, with 26 percent in December declining to state an opinion compared with just 12 percent in April and 16 percent in November.

In addition, Kaiser said 39 percent of those polled ages 65 and older said the Medicare program will be worse off under the health care law—a drop from 43 percent who responded that way in July. There were 22 percent who said it will be better.

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll was conducted Dec. 1 through Dec. 6 among a nationally representative random sample of 1,207 adults ages 18 and older. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margin of error may be higher in subgroups.

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