The public generally supports the public option. This may be one big reason that Senate majority leader Harry Reid surprised many in Washington by including a proposal for government-run insurance – also known as the "public option" – in the Senate's version of healthcare reform legislation.
"All the national polls show a wide majority of Americans support the public option," Senator Reid said on Monday.
Whether the public option can make it to the Senate floor, however, remains an open question. On Tuesday, some key Senate moderates said they still opposed a government-run insurance plan. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut said he would support a GOP filibuster of a healthcare bill if it contained a public-option provision.
Poll results tend to back up Reid's assertion that voters approve the public option. In an Oct. 21 Gallup survey, for instance, 50 percent of respondents thought a healthcare bill should include a public, government-run insurance plan. Forty-six percent thought it should not.
But as that poll also shows, the margin in favor of the public option can be smaller than Reid asserted. Opinions on the topic are not strongly held and could be changed, some polling experts say.
"Whichever side – the proponents or opponents – gets their message to break through and become the real perception of Americans, that is who is going to win the public opinion on this topic, given how soft and malleable public opinion is," said Mollyann Brodie, director of public opinion at the Kaiser Family Foundation, at a seminar in Washington last Friday.
On Tuesday, Washington was still grappling with the aftermath of Reid's announcement that the Senate bill would include a public option, albeit one that contains a clause allowing states to opt out. For weeks, many pundits had predicted the public option's demise, since it is opposed by moderate Democrats who are crucial to the future of the healthcare reform legislation.
Some of those moderates were saying they remain concerned. Senator Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said that he would vote against the bill if it contains a public-option provision, even one with an opt-out escape hatch.
Another key moderate, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, said in a statement that she was still "very skeptical" about a government-run insurance plan and that she was still working with Reid to find a "principled compromise."
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, the only Republican in Congress who has voted for any of the early Democratic versions of healthcare reform, said Tuesday that she would vote with Republicans to block the version outlined by Reid.
Surveying public opinion of the public option, a New England Journal of Medicine article earlier this year co-authored by Harvard health-policy professor Robert Blendon found it mixed. "Introduction of a public plan as a competitor is supported in most polls, but respondents vary in their beliefs about how such a plan should function," said the article.
Yet some recent polls have shown strong support. In an Oct. 20 ABC News/Washington Post survey, 57 percent of respondents were in favor of government establishing a health plan to compete with private insurers.
Some analysts have criticized this survey, saying it did not make clear that the government would actually run the plan. If that information is added, support diminishes, they claim.
"I would argue that there is no public opinion on the public option. You can move the public-opinion needle significantly with changes in wording or emphasis," said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, at the Oct. 23 Kaiser Family Foundation seminar on health reform and polls.
But Ms. Brodie of Kaiser said that in their polls, they have tried a number of different wordings, and while support varies, it still exists.
"No matter how we ask it, we get a majority supporting it in one way or another," she said.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
For more on the reemergence of the public option yesterday, click here.
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