Do Americans agree with town hall protesters on healthcare?

Polls show Americans continue to support important elements of health reform but are increasingly nervous about the costs of any new legislation.

Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/AP
Dan Thompson of Canton, Mich., speaks out against health care reform and yells at others during Congressman John D. Dingell's town hall meeting in Romulus, Mich. Thursday. Dingell is the author of the H.R. 3200 health insurance reform legislation.

The biggest obstacle to passage of the healthcare reform plans now moving through Congress may not be the placard-waving protesters who are disrupting some lawmakers’ town hall meetings. Instead, it could be public opinion writ large – which appears to be soft on health reform efforts, and getting softer.

Americans do support critical elements of the plans, according to national polls. In that sense, they differ with most involved in the town hall protests.

But the general public is increasingly concerned about the possible costs of new health legislation. This may be particularly true of independent voters. In a recent Quinnipiac University survey, a whopping 77 percent of independents said they did not believe President Obama would be able to keep his promise that health insurance reform would not add to the deficit.

“These are the voters who broke strongly for the president last November and who were in his corner during the first months of his administration,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in a statement. “But on these key healthcare questions they are siding with critics who question whether healthcare reform is worth the projected cost.”

For the Obama administration and its Democratic legislative allies, one big concern is that as the health effort reaches a defining point, polls show that voter doubts on the subject may be growing.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found that 42 percent of respondents thought Mr. Obama’s health plan to be a bad idea, while 36 percent considered it a positive move. Earlier this summer, that same poll found voters evenly split on that question.

Quinnipiac’s poll, released Aug. 5, found that 52 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama’s handling of the healthcare issue, while 39 percent approved. That marked a reversal of fortune from the organization’s July 1 poll, which found Obama’s rating on the question to be 46 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval.

The good news for the White House is that polls show support for specific elements of its health insurance reform effort – including some of the most controversial ones.

For instance, Americans favor the establishment of a public health insurance plan to compete with private insurance providers, according to many polls. Majorities favor government subsidies to help lower-income Americans buy insurance.

But Americans appear unconvinced by White House assertions that health legislation now under consideration would cut the nation’s health spending. A recent Gallup survey found a plurality of 45 percent of respondents believed that a new health reform law would increase US health costs, while only 30 percent said it would decrease them.

Plus, many voters do not appear to believe that the US healthcare system has major problems. Only 20 percent said healthcare is "in a state of crisis," according to the Gallup survey.

A recent Gallup analysis of numerous polls on healthcare concludes that US views on healthcare reform remain in “a state of flux," perhaps mirroring congressional debate on a contentious issue.

“Two keys for the average American appear to be cost and urgency,” says the Gallup study. “The data suggest a continuing need to convince Americans of the return on investment of any proposed major investment in healthcare reform.”


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