America wants health reform by Joel Benenson*

March 15, 2010, Monday/ 15:19:00
It is ironic that Democratic pollsters Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen felt “compelled” to “challenge the myths” about public attitudes on healthcare by simply restating one of the most commonly stated -- and patently wrong -- Republican myths.No pollster, including me, could look at the recent data and responsibly say anything other than that the American public is closely divided when it comes to supporting or opposing various healthcare plans. The most recent Washington Post poll (from Feb. 10) shows a narrow gap between support and opposition: 46 percent favor, 49 percent oppose. This data is consistent with eight of the 12 most recent independent public polls reported on Pollster.com.

In light of this data, it is irresponsible, and wrong, for Schoen and Caddell to assert that a “solid majority of Americans oppose” healthcare reform.

In fact, two recent polls, including one with the most negative ratings on healthcare, reveal through follow-up questions that a significant number of people who oppose current plans do so because they don’t go far enough rather than because they go too far. Not only is it absurd to suggest that these people would rise up against Democrats for passing the president’s plan, it is far more likely that they would join others who support the plan and punish those who tried to block reform or voted against it.

Let’s take the CNN poll from early January -- the most negative independent poll on healthcare and one that predated President Barack Obama’s proposal. Only 40 percent supported the bills passed by Congress, while 57 percent opposed them. But in a crucial follow-up question, a net of 10 percent of all Americans opposed the bill because it was “not liberal enough.” If one makes the reasonable assumption that these people are far more likely to side with supporters of the president’s plan than with Republicans who are obstructing it, the results would show that 50 percent favor the plan or want a broader one, while only 45 percent oppose the plan.

Similarly, a more recent poll by Ipsos showed that among the 47 percent who initially said they “opposed healthcare,” more than a third of opponents said they “favor” reform overall but think the current plan doesn’t go “far enough.” Shifting these people to the group in “favor of reform” would reduce opposition to current reforms to under 40 percent.

So what is really going on here, and what does this mean politically in 2010?

Healthcare and healthcare reform are complex issues for policy experts, let alone for the rest of us. After a year of debate that has focused more on political process than policy, it is not surprising that Kaiser found in January that more than four in 10 Americans are not aware that the current plan includes elements such as tax credits to small business that want to offer coverage to employees or that it bans insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The central components of the plan -- a ban on denying coverage of pre-existing conditions, closing the Medicare “doughnut hole” on the drug coverage gap for seniors, creating an insurance exchange in which small business and those without coverage could buy private insurance at competitive rates -- are all supported by solid majorities, from 60 percent to 81 percent.

There’s no question that a majority of Americans oppose a government-run health system. But there is no government-run healthcare in the plan, and not a single American would be forced into any government-run program.

In politics, new information is always the most potent. When it comes to healthcare and insurance, once reform passes, the tangible benefits Americans will realize will trump the fear-mongering rhetoric opponents are stoking today.

And when that reality kicks in, the political burden will shift from those who supported the plan to those who voted against banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those who are sick, against the tax credits for small businesses offering coverage, or against helping seniors on Medicare pay less for prescription drugs.

It is no accident that Republican leaders are warning Democrats of dire political consequences if health reform passes.

But there is every reason to believe that for Republicans, the negative consequences will be their own.


*Joel Benenson, president and co-founder of the Benenson Strategy Group, is the lead pollster to President Barack Obama. © The Washington Post, 2010