Polling Data on Health Care Reform Hard to Parse

By Beacon Staff

Christopher Beam on Slate has a really smart piece today about how polling on health care reform is totally uninformative, since it’s one of those issues so complex as to defy simple characterization. It’s one of those articles that doesn’t really move the discussion forward, so much as it helps you understand how tough reforming the U.S. health care system is going to be, if it happens at all, as well as demonstrate how easy it is for politicians on either side of this issue to cherry pick statistics favorable to their view.

And it also shows how paradoxical poll results can be. You know, like those polls where people say they prefer a smaller, more limited government, but on specific programs, people also say they support policies and programs that tend to lead to a larger, expanded government presence.

Poll questions typically break down into two categories. There are questions that measure core beliefs and values. Do you like your health care plan? Do you think it costs too much? Does the system need to be reformed? In general, responses to these core beliefs questions are steady over time, and respondents know exactly what they think about them.

But then there are complex policy questions. Should we force employers to offer insurance? Should individuals be forced to buy it? Do you support a “co-op” plan as opposed to a full public plan? With these questions, responses vary widely depending on the presentation. The phrase “tax your benefits” sounds unappealing in a vacuum. But when people are told that taxing benefits could pay for health care reform and more, they’re more receptive.

As a result, health care polling can offer unhelpful data. Republicans often point to high levels of satisfaction with current health care plans as evidence that reform is unnecessary. Indeed, a whopping 83 percent of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their health care. But dig down into specifics—particularly cost, continued coverage, and the overall health care system in this country—and they have nothing but concerns. For example, many people like their health care plan but support a public option just in case they lose their job. So when people say they’re “satisfied,” argues Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com, “It’s, I’m satisfied, please dear God don’t take it away.”

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