Americans Do Want Health Care Reform

Published July 31, 2009

With President Barack Obama’s encouragement, congressional leaders are charging ahead to reshape America’s health care sector. They often cite isolated answers to opinion polls purported to show widespread support for their proposals.

But public opinion polling is a messy business. More comprehensive analyses reveal serious concerns about the president’s platform.

In fact, most Americans are wary of reforms that could result in the government tampering with their coverage, digging deeper into their wallets, or increasing the public debt.

Most Want Reform

Most Americans do think reform is urgently needed. A 2009 Diageo/Hotline poll found 62 percent of respondents favored “enacting a major overhaul of the health care system.” An April poll from the Kaiser Foundation discovered a similar number—59 percent—thought “it is more important than ever to take on health care reform now.”

But regarding priorities for legislative action, Kaiser found Americans rank health care reform fourth, after improving the economy, ensuring the financial stability of Medicare and Social Security, and reducing the federal deficit.

Concerned About Spending

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll confirmed serious concerns about the government’s fiscal irresponsibility. A quarter of respondents put the deficit as the most important economic challenge facing the country. Just 11 percent put health care first.

Reformers should keep these results in mind because huge new government programs could push the country even further into the red.

Americans are also wary of the government disrupting their current coverage or raising taxes to finance reform. A recent New York Times poll found more than three-fourths of respondents were satisfied with the quality of their own medical care. Only about four in 10 were willing to pay $500 or more in taxes annually to finance an overhaul of the health care system.

Higher Spending Unwanted

Similarly, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late June found most people are “very concerned” legislation could cause “higher costs, lower quality, fewer choices, a bigger deficit, diminished insurance coverage, and more government bureaucracy.”

That should serve as a warning against sweeping reform: More than 80 percent of those surveyed reported being satisfied with their quality of care.

In other words, Americans want reform, but they don’t want it to jeopardize their existing coverage, require additional deficit spending, or cause new or higher taxes.

Increased Bureaucratic Control

It’s the same story for efforts to have the government determine what medical treatments are good or bad. Congress already has allocated $1.1 billion to create a new government “comparative effectiveness research” program charged with assessing medical treatments.

This information could be used to deny patients on public insurance access to advanced treatments. That’s exactly the kind of bureaucratic tampering the American people are worried about.

Interestingly, an April poll by Kaiser, National Public Radio, and the Harvard School of Public Health found while 55 percent of respondents support an independent body of scientific experts recommending which medical treatments should be insured, significantly fewer—41 percent—approve of that body if its members are “appointed by the federal government.”

Tax Increases Lack Support

Health reform is crucial, but most Americans like the care they have and don’t want the government intruding. And they don’t want higher taxes or a bigger deficit.

To garner support for health reform, lawmakers should scrap their plans to inject more government into the health marketplace and instead encourage more competition and innovation.

To expand access, policymakers can target subsidies to the uninsured, provide incentives for more affordable health insurance, and develop a better safety net for those who have trouble buying coverage. Lawmakers also can make health insurance portable and allow people more options to keep their insurance if they move or change jobs.

These are the sorts of reforms patients—and maybe even politicians—could support because they don’t threaten to turn the one-sixth of our economy that is our health sector over to the government.

Grace-Marie Turner ([email protected]) is president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Galen Institute, a nonprofit research organization. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Hill newspaper. Reprinted with permission.