Public Actually Supportive of Health Plan

By Dan Froomkin
1:02 PM ET, 06/24/2009

How troubled are Americans by President Obama's proposed health-care overhaul? Less than you might think after reading Ceci Connolly and Jon Cohen's story in The Washington Post today. They write:

A majority of Americans see government action as critical to controlling runaway health-care costs, but there is broad public anxiety about the potential impact of reform legislation and conflicting views about the types of fixes being proposed on Capitol Hill, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Most respondents are "very concerned" that health-care reform would lead to higher costs, lower quality, fewer choices, a bigger deficit, diminished insurance coverage and more government bureaucracy. About six in 10 are at least somewhat worried about all of these factors, underscoring the challenges for lawmakers as they attempt to restructure the nation's $2.3 trillion health-care system....

As for the finding in other polls that there is widespread support for a "public plan," which would allow people to purchase insurance from a government-run plan if they weren't happy with the private options, Connolly and Cohen write:

Survey questions that equate the public option approach with the popular, patient-friendly Medicare system tend to get high approval, as do ones that emphasize the prospect of more choices. But when framed with an explicit counterargument, the idea receives a more tepid response. In the new Post-ABC poll, 62 percent support the general concept, but when respondents were told that meant some insurers would go out of business, support dropped sharply, to 37 percent.

But take a close look at the actual poll questions and results, and the numbers tell a somewhat different story.

First of all, a majority of Americans (53 percent) say they approve of how Obama is handling health care. A larger majority (57 percent) say they are dissatisfied with the current health care system.

By very significant margins, the public likes key aspects of Obama's proposed overhaul. Some 70 percent support a tax credit or other aid to help low-income Americans pay for health insurance; 68 percent support a rule that insurance companies sell coverage to people regardless of pre-existing conditions; 62 percent support having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans. And, yes, that last number goes down if they are warned that "many private health insurers" would then go out of business -- but that's an argumentative assertion made by opponents of the proposal, without any basis in fact. As Ezra Klein blogs for The Washington Post:

If you asked poll respondents, "What if having the public plan lowered your insurance premiums by 20 to 30 percent," my hunch is you'd see a sharp shift toward support of the policy.

On the revenue-generating side, 60 percent support Obama's proposal to raise income taxes on Americans with household incomes over $250,000 to help pay for health care reform. And, interestingly, 70 percent oppose the tax increase some Congressional Democrats say they prefer to Obama's proposal (imposing taxes on high-value health benefits).

So where's the beef? Well, when asked if they have "concerns," people say -- not surprisingly -- that they do. Although their biggest concern is about their family's health care costs in the future, they are also concerned that "current efforts to reform the health care system" will (in descending order) increase their health-care costs, increase the deficit, reduce their insurance coverage, reduce the quality of their health care, and limit their choices of doctors.

But it strikes me that with the details of a health-care overhaul still very much in the air, it simply makes sense to be "concerned." The more significant question is what measures people favor -- and they seem to be lining up behind Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama spoke to ABC News's Diane Sawyer about health care this morning, as part of a media push that wraps up tonight with a televised town meeting. And he directly took on the argument that various "concerns" mean his proposal should be scaled back, or abandoned:

[H]ere's the problem. If we don't change. If we don't reform the system. Then people are going to lose their health care. Or it's going take a bigger and bigger chunk of their paycheck. Or their employer is going start dropping coverage. Or the Federal Government is going stop-- being able to reimburse everything on Medicare and Medicaid. And so, you know, the situation that we confront is do nothing. In which case, the trend lines are such that American families are going be more and more vulnerable. Or we make common sense sensible changes, based on good medicine and good science, which helps us to drive down costs. And allows everybody to have the coverage they need.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company