Monday, September 6, 2010


The latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll, conducted in August, shows public support for health care reform falling. After two monthly polls in which reform was viewed increasingly favorably, the new poll shows a sharp decline in public backing for the new law.

Kaiser polls in the first couple of months after enactment of PPACA showed more confusion than clear support or opposition, but by June favorable views gained an edge, with 48 percent supporting reform and 41 percent opposed. The July results continued this trend, with opposition falling to just 35 percent, and support continuing to gain, implying that Obama administration efforts to build support were paying off.

The August poll, then, came as a shock to reform advocates. The percentage of those viewing reform favorably slumped to 43 percent, while the unfavorable number rose to 45 percent. Why? Some part of the change can be attributed to growing disenchantment with the White House and government in general, while anyone whose coverage was renewed during the summer saw premium increases that could readily, if not necessarily accurately, be blamed on reform. At the same time, conservatives maintained a barrage of criticisms that appeared to be more persuasive than reform supporters’ promises that better times were coming (but mostly not until 2014).

Is the downward trend in reform support likely to continue? The positive publicity associated with the $250 Medicare D doughnut hole rebate checks and the ending of most pre-existing condition limits for children has faded, but many individuals will gain from other PPACA provisions being implemented this year. Most annual and lifetime benefit limits will be eliminated, children can be added to their parents’ coverage, preventive care will be available to most without out-of-pocket payments, federally subsidized high-risk pools will be created or expanded, and credits will be available for some small businesses. However, whether this collection of goodies will be enough to reverse the public’s unfavorable view of reform remains to be seen.

While it’s clear that reform provisions implemented in 2010 will benefit many, they will have to be paid for, and those changes without specific federal funding will result in premium increases—something that insurers and reform opponents will be quick to emphasize. For all its opposition to PPACA, the health care industry now has the perfect whipping boy for every escalation in costs and—in conjunction with political conservatives—will make sure reform takes the blame for each dollar of increased premium.

Meanwhile, the really major reform provisions remain in the future, with each carrying its own public relations risk. The potential downside of “health care for all” (or, at least, most) is the threat of penalties for those unwilling to obtain coverage (assuming the coverage mandate is not rejected by the courts). The potential downside of the insurance exchanges is that their implementation will be chaotic, at least in some states. The potential downside of enrolling into Medicaid those who cannot afford insurance is that Medicaid is still viewed by most as a welfare program—and most people don’t want to be on welfare.

For all its positives, PPACA merely redistributes the costs of coverage, meaning inevitably that many people will pay more. And—unless reform advocates can be far more persuasive than they have been so far—it will be these folk who drive the unfavorable public view of reform.

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