WASHINGTON - The launch next year of Medicare's new prescription drug program is not prompting companies that offer retiree drug benefits to drop those benefits - at least in the short run. But many employers are unsure what they will do a few years from now when it comes to prescription drug benefits, according to a new study of the programs and plans of large U.S. corporations.
In the meantime, a steady exodus of employers from retiree health insurance overall continues, the study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and benefits consultants Hewitt Associates said.
Under the new Medicare law, employers that offer benefits as good or better than the government's can obtain a subsidy if they continue their own programs. That's what about four in five big employers say they will do next year.
"Most employers are accepting government subsidies and taking a wait-and-see attitude on the drug law" said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which, along with Hewitt, surveyed some 300 large employers.
"The widespread dropping of drug benefits that some had feared has been averted so far as businesses figure out what their longer-term response will be," Altman said in a statement released with the study Wednesday.
"This is mostly good news for retirees," said Tricia Neuman, one of the study's authors. But, she added, "employers will no doubt revisit this issue in future years."
Even so, some 9 percent of companies now offering prescription drug benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees said they would stop doing so next year, and another 10 percent said they would provide limited drug coverage to supplement Medicare's.
In addition, the interaction of Medicare and company medical plan rules can create a potential pitfall for retirees, the study said. Retirees themselves have the option of signing up for the new Medicare Part D, but under the rules of about two-thirds of companies, doing so will cause them to lose some or all of the employer-sponsored medical insurance.
At about 29 percent of companies, retirees who sign up for Medicare drug coverage will lose not only their employer's drug coverage but all of their employer-provided medical insurance.
"For retirees with employer coverage, informed decision-making is especially important," the study said. "Many are concerned that some retirees - faced with a fairly significant change in their Medicare options - may sign up for a Medicare prescription drug plan without realizing the potential consequences in terms of forfeiting their employer-sponsored benefits."
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