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Medicare Web Site Confounds Many Seniors

Confusing information, complex language makes site hard to use, researchers say

TUESDAY, Aug. 19 (HealthDay News) -- A majority of seniors who visit the Medicare Web site find getting the information they need a frustrating experience, University of Miami researchers report.

Whether trying to determine their eligibility for home health care or which Medicare drug plan is best for them, most seniors found Medicare's Web site difficult to use. Yet, many seniors say, the Internet could be a valuable source of medical information.

"Medicare Web site is somewhat difficult for people to use," said lead researcher Sara J. Czaja, co-director of the Center on Aging at the university's Miller School of Medicine. "They find it confusing and overly complex."

Participants in the study found the Medicare site difficult to navigate from page to page, and hard to get the information they needed, Czaja said. Moreover, some of the information was confusing, and some of the language was too complex, she added.

"When E-health tools are designed, designers really have to think about a broad and inclusive group of users and what their needs and abilities are," Czaja said.

Designers may be too concerned with getting all the content on the site at the expense of making it user-friendly, Czaja said.

The report was published in a research letter in the Aug. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For the study, Czaja's team had 112 people aged 50 and older, who were all computer-literate, attempt to navigate the Medicare Web site.

The participants were asked to use the Web site to determine their eligibility for home health care services, select a home health care agency, make a decision about enrolling in the Medicare part D prescription drug program, and select a drug plan.

The researchers found 68.8 percent of the participants weren't able to get specific information about the criteria for home health care services, and 80.4 percent could not choose the correct home health agency.

In addition, 83.9 percent weren't able to do the computation necessary for making a decision about which home health care plan to enroll in. In fact, only 57.1 percent were able to make a decision about which plan to enroll in.

When it came to enrolling in the Medicare part D prescription drug program, 72.3 percent had problems navigating the necessary Web pages, locating information, and following the steps necessary for selecting a plan, the researchers found.

"We really have to think who we are designing these Web sites for, what their needs are, and what their capabilities are," Czaja said. "We can't assume that everyone has a sophisticated level of computer skills."

Allison Henry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, doesn't think the site has the problems suggested by the study. Henry is not sure what the participants in the study were asked to do. "Without that information, we question the usefulness of the study," she said.

Henry noted that a number of tools have been added to the site to help Medicare beneficiaries make their health-care decisions. "CMS has worked to organize and format these tools in a consumer-friendly manner by conducting both qualitative and quantitative research of the Web site tools with multiple audiences."

All these online tools are tested by people likely to use the site, Henry said. "The information gathered from testing is used to make improvements to the Web site. Our research is ongoing, and the Web site continues to make enhancements on an incremental basis."

Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, thinks the Web site's complexity is a reflection of the complexity of Medicare itself.

"It would be nice to have an administration more committed to people understanding what their rights are," Hayes said. "The administration could provide better quality services with more accuracy."

"In fairness, it's also true that Congress and the Bush administration has made so much of Medicare so complex that even folks with the best of intentions are going to be misdirecting consumers," Hayes said.

The solution to the problem is twofold, Hayes noted. First, there needs to be a commitment to greater quality and an effort to respond to consumer needs. Second, the next Congress needs to streamline and simplify Medicare programs, including the part D prescription drug benefit program and Medicare Advantage, Hayes said.

"It's absolutely true that the complexity that President Bush has brought to Medicare during his two terms in office has been unfortunate," Hayes said.

More information

To see the Medicare Web site, visit the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

SOURCES: Sara J. Czaja, Ph.D., professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and co-director, Center on Aging, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Allison Henry, spokeswoman, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Robert Hayes, president, Medicare Rights Center, New York City; Aug. 20, 2008, Journal of the American Medical Association

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