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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Deciphering Public Opinion on Health Care Reform

As Harry Reid (D-NV), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Max Baucus (D-MT), Rahm Emanuel, and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) continue to hammer out the Health Reform compromise between the Senate's HELP and Finance Committees there is a picture emerging with regard to public opinion toward health reform – and at first glance it makes little sense. The most recent data from Pollster.Com (see chart below) show that public support has begun to drop (after a mini-rally last week) and opposition is on the rise. A recent ABC News survey found that 48% opposed “the proposed changes to the health care system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration,” while 45% supported such changes. A Fox News survey found that 54% opposed “the health care reform legislation being considered right now,” and only 34% supported it. According to Rasmussen Reports 54% opposed “the health care reform plan proposed by President Obama and the congressional Democrats,” and 42% supported.

Taken together these polls suggest considerable opposition – but beyond these topline questions the picture becomes murkier. When ABC News asked “Would you support or oppose having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans” an overwhelming 57% indicated support – odd given that such a proposal is being considered as part of the changes being developed by Congress – the same changes that only 42% of respondents supported. When Fox News asked whether respondents would prefer “the current health care system or the health care plan proposed by the Democrats in Congress” the current system was favored by a 51% to 34% margin. The Rasmussen survey found that a majority of respondents believed that health care costs would increase and quality decrease if the current reforms were enacted.

So what can we make of this? There appears to be clear opposition to the health reform plans in general, support for maintaining the current system, a lack of faith in the ability of the proposed reforms to control costs or maintain quality, but also clear support for the creation of a public option. I see two possible explanations – one being that many Americans don’t know what the “public option” is and therefore their response to questions regarding support or opposition must be taken with a grain of salt. A recent post by Mark Blumenthal at Pollster.Com gives credence to the theory that the public does not understand the term. As he points out, a recent PEW study found that 56% of the public correctly linked the term “public option” to health, meaning that 44% of the populace does not recognize the term. He also points to a randomized internet survey where only 37% of the adult population could correctly identify the public option when presented with three choices (by random chance you would get 33%). So perhaps the public simply does not get it. There is one other possibility that gives the public a bit more credit. When Fox News asked respondents whether they supported reforming “the entire health care system” or reforms to provide “health insurance to those who don't have it,” covering the uninsured was preferred by a 50% to 27% margin. With that answer, current public opinion makes much more sense.

The current proposals in Congress would represent system-wide changes, though largely incremental in nature, they are more akin to the “Comprehensive Incrementalism” defined by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein. It would appear that most Americans are opposed to the proposed comprehensive incrementalism, but support efforts to cover the uninsured – such as a public, or government-sponsored health insurance option. So when ABC News asked whether respondents would support “a plan that includes some form of government sponsored health insurance for people who can't get affordable private insurance, but is approved without support from Republicans in Congress; or a plan that is approved with support from Republicans in Congress, but does not include any form of government-sponsored health insurance for people who can't get affordable private insurance?” it should not be surprising that “government sponsored health insurance for people who can't get affordable private insurance” was preferred over bipartisanship by a 51% to 37% margin. This is roughly the margin that preferred covering the uninsured over system-wide reform in the Fox poll. By no means does it suggest that the public would prefer Democrats to “go it alone” on overall health care reform, nor does it suggest public support for current proposals would be higher if those proposals contained a public option. It does tell us that Democrats are correct when they say that the public supports a public option, and Republicans are correct when they say that the public opposes the health reform proposals currently being considered in Congress.