12 August 2010

For Many still in the Dark, Groups shed Light on Health Care Law

USA Today

True or false: The new health care law will cut Medicare benefits for seniors. It will slash Medicare payments to doctors. It will ration health care.

In three polls conducted last month, large percentages of Americans answered "true" to each statement. All three are false.

Six weeks before the nation's health care delivery system begins a huge transformation, confusion reigns. For example: The debunked idea raised by opponents during congressional debate that "death panels" could make end-of-life decisions is seen as real by nearly half of those surveyed.

Many key parts of the new law, signed by President Obama in March, take effect in several stages beginning next month and continuing through 2015. Because it's so complex, consumer advocates worry that people won't take advantage of its benefits, so they have embarked on a nationwide education campaign.

"People are still afraid that there are death panels ... or that Medicare is going to go away," says Cheryl Matheis of AARP, the nation's largest seniors organization. "We have an obligation to get the information out there. Historically, people don't use services as much as the services are available to them, because they're just not aware."

That's true of most of the nation's safety-net programs, including Medicaid, welfare and food stamps. In the case of the health care law, a number of provisions kicking in this year must be claimed. Among them:

•Young adults. If they lack coverage, they can stay on their parents' plans up until they turn 26.

•Tax credits. As many as 4 million small businesses are eligible for tax credits of up to 35% of their health insurance costs.

•Preventive services. Consumers can obtain tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies without having to pay a share of the cost.

•High-risk coverage. People with pre-existing conditions or who are uninsured at least six months can get this coverage through a state or federal high-risk pool.

Despite outreach from the federal and state governments, insurers, businesses and consumer groups, however, it's up to individuals to seek the available care, coverage or tax credits.

"It's going to take some time for people to understand how the law benefits them," says Stephanie Cutter, assistant to the president for special projects. "It's critical that there is extensive outreach with consumers, the business community and the insurance industry if we want to ensure the maximum benefits of the law."

The need for outreach became apparent in recent weeks following the release of three polls:

The National Council on Aging posed 12 questions about the law to 636 seniors and found that fewer than 17% of them knew half the answers. For instance, only one in three knew that Medicare will offer free annual wellness exams.

"I was surprised by the magnitude of confusion and how much work we have to get the facts out," says Howard Bedlin, the council's vice president for public policy and advocacy.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit research organization, and Harris Interactive market research firm found similar confusion among both seniors and the general population.

More than four in 10 people in the Kaiser poll wrongly believe the law included a government panel to make end-of-life decisions for Medicare patients. More than one-third in the Harris Poll said it included a government plan to compete with private insurers, something that was scuttled during congressional debate.

"The level of ignorance and misinformation is sort of astounding," says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll. "It seems people are still reacting to the rhetoric, not the substance of what is in the bill, because they don't actually know what is or is not in the actual legislation."

As the Department of Health and Human Services issues the regulations needed to implement the law, it's trying to get the facts out through its website, healthcare.gov. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is helping, most recently with a cable TV ad featuring Andy Griffith.

Insurance companies, many of which opposed the law, also are trying to spread the word online. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina offers an interactive timeline. Aetna has questions and answers for seven topics.

"There's going to be a lot of information out there," says Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade group.

The calendar gives advocates of the law time to spread the word — something Families USA, a health care consumers group, is doing with regional forums that feature state and federal officials.

Kathleen Stoll, the group's director of health policy, helped organize the most recent forum in Philadelphia last week and was struck by what the 150 participants knew — and didn't know.

"They're sort of hearing there's something bad," she says, "but they're not hearing any of the good stuff."

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