While the health care debate in Washington is consumed with CBO estimates and co-ops, regular people are concerned with one simple thing: What will this mean for me?
The numerous polls released this month on health care contain lots of conflicting data, and some are clearly put out there to try and affect the debate. Even the nonpartisan media polls turn up different responses to seemingly similar questions.
Even so, a consistent theme is clear: Americans know that the system is broken and would like to see it fixed. But the more a potential fix affects them personally, the less interested they are in supporting it.
Americans aren't proud of the inequities in the current health care system. In the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 73 percent agreed that the fact that "many Americans do not have health insurance" is a "very serious" problem. The Diageo/Hotline poll found that 62 percent supported a "major overhaul" of health care. Pew found that 75 percent favored "changing the health care system in this country so that all Americans have health insurance that covers all medically necessary care."
In the debate over health care reform, voters want change as long as it means that the bad kind of change won't happen to them.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked a series of questions probing just how far folks would go in lending a helping hand to those without coverage. Would they approve the concept of raising taxes on those making $250,000 or more? Sure. How about requiring everyone to have insurance but letting government help pick up the tab for people with "low and moderate incomes." Why not?
But when asked if they'd be willing to pay more in taxes, either on their current health care plan or in general, respondents quickly pull back. Just 33 percent agreed with the idea of taxing health care benefits for those with "generous" plans. The Diageo/Hotline poll found just 26 percent of voters supported a tax on health care plans. And a Kaiser poll reported that only 41 percent of Americans were willing to pay more either in taxes or health care premiums to cover the uninsured.
A CNN/Opinion Research survey and a poll taken for the Republican group Resurgent Republic both asked the question on taxes this way: "Would you prefer a health care reform plan that raises taxes in order to provide health insurance to all Americans, or a plan that does not provide health insurance to all Americans but keeps taxes at current levels?"
CNN's poll, conducted in mid-May, found the public split between the two at 47 percent. The Resurgent poll, released on Monday, showed stronger opposition to tax increases (39 percent) and more support for keeping taxes at the current levels (52 percent). Still, both suggest raising taxes to pay for health reform is not a popular position.
The CBS/Times poll was the outlier, with 57 percent agreeing to pay more in taxes to cover all Americans. But the question's wording focused more on the plight of the uninsured than on taxes: "Would you be willing or not willing to pay higher taxes so that all Americans have health insurance that they can't lose no matter what?" As such, it's not surprising that a higher percentage picked the uninsured.
Finally, people are much more satisfied with their own care than they are with the country's overall. In the Kaiser poll, a majority (52 percent) say that their family would either be worse off or unaffected by any health care reform. Yet 57 percent think that the country would be better off if Congress passed health care reform.
That means that when the possibility is raised that one's own care could be affected, well, folks are less charitable. Paying a bit more in taxes is one thing. But limiting access to doctors, tests and care is totally off limits. In the CBS/Times poll, 68 percent said they'd be concerned that a public plan would limit access to tests and treatments.
Trying to sell health care reform as a way to fix the overall economy, as the Obama administration has tried to do, doesn't move many Americans, either. Fifty-seven percent in the CBS/Times poll thought a public plan would either hurt or have no effect on the economy. This suggests that the more Obama and Congress take the issue of reform away from expanding coverage (i.e., helping real people) and more into abstract concepts, the harder it is to sell.
In the debate over health care reform, voters want change as long as it means that the bad kind of change won't happen to them. This doesn't mean that health care reform is impossible. It just means that the most important selling point is that those with the most to lose (the ones with health care benefits) aren't asked to risk the most.