One thing seems increasingly clear about President Obama’s ambitious plan to reform the health-care system. The nation can’t afford it, and even if it could, polls show that a growing number of Americans aren’t ready for reform.
A recent survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies shows that opposition to Obama’s health care proposals is virtually the same as that for President Clinton’s in 1994 with 37 percent against to 25 percent in favor. Although generally connected with the Republicans, the polling organization’s findings are substantially in line with that of others, including those associated with the Democrats. The poll found that opposition to the plan cuts across party lines and includes diverse interest groups like seniors, women and independents.
What makes Public Opinion’s research more important than some is that the concern’s founder, Bill McInturff, has devoted much of his career to the issue of health care. He is known for conducting the polling for the "Harry and Louise" television commercials that were a major factor in the defeat of the Clinton plan.
With red ink piling up, the economic recovery sluggish, and the prospect of continuing high unemployment, the national checkbook is strained to the limit. Even the White House conceded recently that the deficit over the next 10 years would be $9 trillion instead of the $7 trillion it had projected. Most of us can’t even conceive of that much money.
What is even more disturbing is the president’s insistence on such huge new federal expenditures before tackling the dire problems facing Social Security. The steadily increasing drain on the big trust fund because of retiring baby boomers has forced the experts to constantly revise their estimates of when it will go bankrupt. What was a 2040 estimate is now around 2034. And then there is Medicare. The politically volatile task of trimming the runaway growth in that huge program for the elderly is complicating the health-care picture overall.
With the summer congressional recess coming to an end, lawmakers will return to the health care issue battered and bruised by raucous demonstrations both for and against major reform. While those opposing sweeping overhaul seem to have been better organized than those supporting it, Democratic liberals have been exerting pressure on their own legislators to stand firm, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of a public option program that would be designed to compete with private insurance companies.
At this stage, McInturff and other demographers believe that ultimately the president will have to dump the public option as a means of getting support for other portions of the program, including portability of insurance, abolition of bans on pre-existing conditions, and reform of the private insurance sector. Opponents of creating another bureaucracy to manage a public plan argue that it is a poorly disguised first step toward single payer, universal health care, i.e., "socialized medicine."
That accusation has resonated with a broad section of Americans who are against giving up their current insurance coverage. It also has caused some embarrassment to the president, who during his campaign continuously said any plan would let Americans keep what they have, that all he intends is to bring about cost-lowering competition in the insurance industry. Although that might be true in the short term, critics legitimately note that a publicly run insurer would have a distinct advantage over private carriers and ultimately bring about a huge migration of customers to the government-run program, destabilizing the private industry.
Do the Democrats have enough votes to pass whatever they wish in the House? Most certainly they do. But the Senate always is a different matter, even with a Democratic majority that is close to being filibuster proof. A prominent liberal pollster recently said the reformers should ignore the polls, a strange idea for one of his profession. Obviously, they are close to not needing any bipartisan support. They would pursue that course at considerable risk, however.
As the hassle continues throughout the fall, the betting is that the enormous deficit figures will convince even some ardent reformists that compromise is necessary to prevent a repeat of 1994.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)