Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting on health care reform Wednesday at a Kroger Supermarket in Bristol, Va.

Public wants health reform, but wary of 'Obama's plan'

Americans worry anything Washington comes up with will only raise costs.

New polls show that many Americans are torn two ways on healthcare reform: They think major change in the system is needed, yet they worry that Washington-style change will backfire – adding to costs and reducing the quality of care.

That view, which emerges in several new polls, reveals why President Obama's push for healthcare reforms has hit speed bumps this summer. But it also suggests that the public could still rally behind a significant departure from the status quo under the right conditions.

Here's what the polls are saying:

•Some 42 percent of Americans say Mr. Obama's healthcare plan is a bad idea, up from 32 percent in June, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday. Thirty-six percent call it a good idea.

•A majority say that if the government creates a system of providing care for all Americans, healthcare will cost more and the quality of care will decline, finds a new New York Times/CBS News poll. The level of worry rose in July compared with June.

•At the same time, Americans in the Times/CBS poll expressed an equal level of concern about rising costs if the government does not guarantee access to care. And most Americans in a new Time magazine poll say they want to see major reforms (not minor tinkering), and they want it soon.

• For all their wariness of big government, Americans generally support the idea of a "public plan" offered by the government alongside private insurers, according to a poll conducted for the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington.

What's the message in all this? The public remains dissatisfied with the status quo in the healthcare system. Yet people have become wary about reform specifics during recent weeks of wrangling on Capitol Hill. Although one poll asked about "Obama's health care plan," he hasn't actually put out a plan. Rather he has coaxed lawmakers to work out a deal that will expand access to care while controlling costs.

Moreover, the public appears to be taking a harder look at the cost of proposed reforms – and the tax consequences – partly because forecasts of federal budget deficits have been going up even without major new health programs.

"Between 68 percent and 88 percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat support health reform ideas such as national health plans, a public plan option, guaranteed issue [of insurance, regardless of health problems], .... and employer and individual mandates," the Employee Benefit Research Institute said in a report Wednesday.

But "views could change as details surface, especially as they concern financing options."

Curbing runaway health costs is the tough part of reform, many analysts agree. Massachusetts residents, for instance, have seen costs rise after an ambitious law passed in 2006 sought to guarantee universal insurance (through mandates on individuals and large employers).

Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland, says the US healthcare system suffers from an oligopoly in which insurers find it too easy to charge high fees – a problem he likens to the narrow market for cable TV service. He sees promise in a bipartisan compromise that could emerge in the Senate, for a national network of private nonprofits to offer lower-priced insurance.

What’s clear from polls is that Americans will evaluate that plan and others carefully – but with minds open to change.

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