Most enrollees in the new Medicare prescription drug program seem to think that the value of the new drug benefits will justify the work that went into comparing drug plans, according to a new survey.

Researchers at America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, have published data supporting that conclusion in a report on a survey of 400 randomly selected U.S. seniors that was conducted last month.

Officials at AHIP, which hired Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Alexandria, Va., to run the survey, say it is the first that assesses the experience and expectations of seniors who already have enrolled in the new Medicare drug program.

Some consumer groups and news reports have focused on the difficulties seniors face when sorting through drug plan choices, but 57% of survey participants told researchers that they believe the time and effort spent on evaluating drug plan choices has been worth it, compared with only 16% who say the benefits have not justified the extra work.

About 56% of the participants say they would recommend the drug plan program, and another 24% say they might recommend the program if it works as expected.

Meanwhile, 51% believe the program will cut their prescription drug costs, and 28% believe the program will increase their overall drug costs, AHIP says.

Researchers also found that many seniors have been making active efforts to learn more about the program: 25% have attended at least one drug benefit education event, and 28% have read about the program on the web.

AHIP President Karen Ignagni says the results show that older Americans are savvy consumers.

“Seniors are confirming that having a choice of drug plans works for them,” Ignagni says.

As of Jan. 1, more than 21 million seniors and people with disabilities will be covered by the Medicare prescription drug program.

The number includes more than 1 million Americans who signed up for the new stand-alone coverage in the first 28 days it was offered. Another 500,000 are expected to be enrolled by the end of January, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS says its goal is to enroll 28 million to 30 million by the end of next year, the first year of the program.

The agency notes an especially strong response from employers and unions that are planning on keeping their retirees in their current health care coverage.

“We expected an initial spike in enrollment, but the participation in Medicare’s new support for retiree coverage is even better than many predicted,” says Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Mark B. McClellan.

More than 11 million retirees are keeping the health care coverage they already have, McClellan reports.

Medicare beneficiaries will get their drug coverage in various ways, including from existing federal or military programs. The enrollment figures as of Dec. 13 are:

o Stand-alone prescription drug plans: more than 1 million;

o Medicare/Medicaid: 6.2 million (including 600,000 in Medicare Advantage plans);

o Medicare Advantage: 4.4 million (plus 600,000 Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries);

o Retiree coverage: About 5.9 million retirees are enrolled in the Medicare retiree subsidy, with another 600,000 in process. Also, about 1 million retirees are in employer coverage that includes or supplements Medicare coverage. Another estimated 500,000 retirees are continuing in coverage that equals Medicare’s; and

o Federal retirees: 3.1 million. This includes retirees receiving coverage from the Federal Employees Health Benefits and TRICARE (military health care) programs.