POLL: Health Care Tops Voters’ Concerns
Health care tops the list of concerns among voters this election year, according to a poll released today by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. In a survey of 1,183 self-described registered voters, 614 identified health care or Medicare as an "important issue in deciding their presidential vote," surpassing their concerns about the economy, crime, jobs, the budget and education. However, the poll showed little consensus on exactly which health care issues voters consider most pressing, as equal proportions of respondents cited patients' rights, prescription drug costs and "spotty" health coverage, while "nearly as many" health care voters chose three other concerns, resulting in a virtual six-way tie. Moreover, although 70% of those polled believe the federal government should work to reduce the number of uninsured, only 38% were willing to pay higher taxes to do so, and 58% opposed a universal, government-provided health plan similar to those in Canada and Britain. Nevertheless, 68% still believe the government should at least ensure prescription drug access for seniors, with 57% endorsing the Clinton-Gore proposal to provide a benefit through Medicare, compared to 36% who support the "Bush-Republican" plan to provide coverage through private insurers backed by government subsidies. Among voters who list health care as their top issue, 80% favor a patients' bill of rights, including a right-to-sue provision, but only about half maintain that support if the legislation means that "some companies might stop offering health care plans to their workers." The poll has a three-point margin of error for all voters and a four-point margin of error for health care voters (Morin/Broder, Washington Post, 7/28).
Health Care Blocs
Despite the muddled results, Mollyann Brodie of the Kaiser Family Foundation said the poll reveals four distinct groups of health care voters: "Medicare swingers," the "friends of Bill" Clinton, those "right in the middle" and "free-market Democrats." For the 26% of health care voters whose top concern is Medicare -- two-thirds of whom are women -- the message to candidates is clear: "Fix Medicare, now." Other health care issues hold little interest for these voters, who oppose radical reform but overwhelmingly support a prescription drug benefit run through Medicare. According to the poll, 47% of swing Medicare voters support GOP nominee George W. Bush and 43% favor Vice President Al Gore. The "friends of Bill" bloc represents one-third of all health care voters -- the "single largest voter group identified." About 80% of these people cast votes for Clinton in 1996 and by a more than 2-1 margin say they will vote for Gore. Nearly three-quarters of F.O.B. voters support a "major" government effort to help the uninsured, and 59% believe there's "too little" regulation of health care. However, the group is not entirely against privatization, as nearly 80% support tax deductions or credits to allow uninsured Americans to purchase private coverage. In contrast, voters "right in the middle" oppose "big government" and federal regulation, with a majority supporting Bush. About 99% of this group, which comprises one-fifth of health care voters, has health coverage and members are the "least likely to have experienced problems obtaining medical care." They overwhelmingly oppose a national health plan and 100% say it is not the government's responsibility to ensure affordable prescription drug access for seniors. Finally, "free-market Democrats" make up about one-fourth of health care voters and agree that the government should cover prescription drugs, but strongly believe "private mechanisms should be brought to bear." About half favor Gore while 35% support Bush, but a "solid third" still believes Bush could do better on a variety of health care policy issues (Morin/Deane, Washington Post, 7/28).
Although Gore leads Bush, 55% to 30%, among health care voters overall, his advantage slips to just four percentage points among all voters, leaving the door open for the Republicans. Hoping to "neutralize the health care issue and diminish the number of voters who make it the deciding factor," the GOP has made health care one of the opening night themes at this year's convention. The GOP's promise to expand health care and provide "access to quality care for all Americans" could prove successful in attracting voters, according to Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. He said, "It's clear that people are in a moderate mood on health care, and that Bush has a real chance to talk to health care voters. The gap between Bush and Gore on this issue is now much narrower than it traditionally has been between Republicans and Democrats." For his part, Gore, who leads Bush on covering the uninsured, prescription drugs and patients' rights, must draw a distinct line between his health proposals and Bush's and assure an "already suspicious" public that his plans will not translate into more government spending. Noting that "it is extremely hard for candidates to explain their positions [on health care] to voters in a way to get political gain," Blendon said proposals often "end up sounding like some very complex government plan that means higher taxes" (Morin/Broder, 7/28).