Seniors are mystified about Medicare, and many are overpaying and failing to find the best health care coverage to meet their needs, according to a new survey.

More than half of people 60 and over said they are confused by the federal program or don't understand it at all, according to the survey sponsored by the National Council on Aging and Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest Medicare insurance provider.

About one in five seniors already enrolled in the program don't even know what type of coverage they have.

The findings come as rising numbers of Americans approach eligibility for Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for those 65 and older. In the next two decades, an average of 10,000 people a day will qualify.

"Without a solid grasp of the basics of Medicare, older adults are not well-positioned to understand their options and find the coverage that best meets their needs," said Jim Firman, CEO of the National Council on Aging.

The government's soaring health care bill has made Medicare a priority for Congress' new deficit-cutting "super committee." Analysts don't expect huge changes in Medicare or Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people jointly funded by states and the federal government, but the debate may be fueling uncertainty.

The survey results, announced Monday in Washington, are part of a broader campaign to raise awareness at senior and community centers across the country.

Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging, agreed that confusion abounds. Minnesota's toll-free Medicare help line fielded 51,000 calls in the first six months of the year, she said. The largest misconception is that Medicare automatically covers nursing home care and assisted living, but many recipients call because claims have been wrongly rejected.

"It's really too much unless you spend a lot of time looking at it," Wood said.

Wood's biggest fear is that seniors will fail to notice an upcoming change in the enrollment period. The deadline to make changes in benefits is Dec. 7 this year, not Dec. 31, as has previously been the case.

Those fears were underscored by the survey, which polled 1,000 people 65 and older and 500 baby boomers between 60 and 64. Only 3 percent correctly identified the new deadline.

While many seniors reported being worried about their ability to pay for health care, more than two-thirds of those eligible for assistance had never heard of programs that could help them pay for premiums, deductibles and co-pays.

Similar numbers were unaware of new discounts from the health care reform law that could save some seniors 50 percent on brand-name drugs and 7 percent on generic drugs.

One in three Medicare enrollees are spending $1,000 or more on out-of-pocket costs, and half said they had never shopped around for coverage.

Even baby boomers, who are on the cusp of Medicare eligibility and are helping their parents navigate the program, are confused. Fifty-five percent said they had a poor understanding of how to help their loved one evaluate and choose the best coverage.

For questions on Medicare, call Minnesota's Senior LinkAge Line at 1-800-333-2433.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335