Poll Shows Strong Support for Obama Health Care Reforms

WEDNESDAY Feb. 11, 2009 -- A broad swath of Americans support President Barack Obama's anticipated overhaul of the U.S. health care system, especially such key proposed elements as government negotiation with drug companies to lower drug prices, or some form of a national health insurance exchange, a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll finds.

In fact, half of the 2,491 adults surveyed in the nationwide poll said they either "strongly" or "somewhat" supported the president's plan to overhaul health care. Twenty-nine percent said they were still not sure about the plan, while 20 percent expressed opposition to the Obama proposals.

While Obama's exact blueprint has not been laid out, he has indicated, both from the Oval Office and on the campaign trail, that the nation's health care system needs to better serve more people at a lesser cost.

Support for certain reforms appeared especially high in the poll. For example, 78 percent of those polled said that allowing Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies was a "good idea." And, six out of 10 respondents were also positive about the formation of a "national health insurance exchange" that would allow both employers and individuals to choose from a much wider pool of private plans. Both of these initiatives were key parts of the Obama health care policy platform during the campaign.

Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll, said he was "not surprised" by the results of the poll, which was conducted online from Jan. 27-29.

"There's an overwhelming desire to fundamentally change the system, not only from the public but also from doctors, employers, insurers, everybody," he said. "Of course, different people want to see different things. But very few people think that the system as we have it now is even close to what we ought to have."

The poll shows that as Americans learn more about Obama's anticipated reforms, they seem better able to make up their mind about them -- either pro or con. For example, 62 percent of those surveyed who said they knew "a lot" about the new president's ideas expressed support for the initiatives, with 36 percent opposed and only 2 percent saying they were "not sure." Among those who said they knew nothing about the Obama proposals, 66 percent remained unsure, 23 percent were supportive, and 11 percent opposed.

Some other key findings:

  • A majority of respondents said the reforms, if carried out, would improve the health care system. Sixty-one percent felt reforms would deliver adequate health insurance to more people, and 54 percent thought health care would be made more cost effective. But a fifth of respondents thought the changes would make the quality of medical care worse, not better.
  • Support for the proposals did not vary significantly based on income. Fifty percent of people making between $15,000 and $25,000 annually approved of the Obama plan, compared to 51 percent of those making $50,000 or more. But the gap widened as respondents looked at specific issues, such as the plan's ability to boost the quality of care or strengthen the economy.
  • Predictably, support split along party lines, with three-quarters of Democrats supporting Obama's overall plan, compared to 26 percent of Republicans. Many Republicans appeared to favor specific elements of the plan, however. For example, 70 percent supported the notion of having Medicare negotiate drug prices, and more than half (53 percent) agreed with offering subsidies to low-income families to ensure universal child health coverage.

Taylor noted that the poll is only the first of a planned series to gauge the public's attitude toward the new administration's approach to health care, so it's too early to spot trends. One poll, conducted a year ago by Harris Interactive and Harvard University while the election campaign was underway, did find a big partisan gap when it came to the notion of "socialized medicine," with 70 percent of Republicans saying that such a system would be worse than the current model and the same percentage of Democrats believing it would be an improvement.

But the Obama proposals are not looking toward a government-run "single-payer system," such as those in Canada or the United Kingdom, Taylor noted. "Nobody here is proposing a government-run system," he said. "They are proposing an expansion of both the private and public sector."

Another health care expert agreed. "I don't know that [the poll] necessarily says that people definitively want more government-run or government-controlled systems," said Dr. Bruce Auerbach, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a strong advocate of recent landmark reforms that mandated health insurance coverage for all Massachusetts residents. "However, I think [poll respondents] do want the government to step in and make sure that they can all get insurance and retain insurance."

The success of the Massachusetts initiative -- an estimated 340,000 formerly uninsured state residents have gained coverage since the plan was introduced in late 2006 -- may have convinced many Americans that similar initiatives might work at the federal level, according to Auerbach. And, the worsening economy, coupled with the popularity of the new president, may also be playing a role in the poll results, he said.

"At this point in time, there's a lot of the American public that is going to trust whatever President Obama rolls out with his team," Auerbach said. And as millions of Americans worry about losing their employer-based health insurance, "more people are going to look favorably at proposals that the government rolls out that provide them with more assurance that they will be able to get -- and retain -- health coverage," he said.

But not everyone agreed with the poll results. Robert Moffit is director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank. He believes that the poll did not provide respondents with the necessary context to give truly informed answers.

"This kind of polling doesn't really talk very specifically about the kinds of trade-offs that people will have to make" should the Obama reforms go through, Moffitt said. "For example, the Congressional Budget Office has found that if the government negotiates [drug] pricing -- if the government fixes prices for drugs below whatever the market is -- this will mean that the government will then have to ration drugs. So, are you now in favor of that as a policy?"

Moffitt believes the answers people provide to pollsters might be different if they had that kind of context. "There are necessary trade-offs that are involved in health policy," he said, "but [those polled] don't know what the trade-offs entail."

For his part, Taylor said that the public's views on the Obama health care plan will undoubtedly change once they are held up to scrutiny in Congress and the media.

"Right now, we are getting positive responses to a concept and some language," he said. "But, of course, that could change once these ideas get out on the table and are discussed."

More information

For more on President Obama's views on health care reform, visit barackobama.com.

Posted: February 2009


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