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HEALTH POLITICS: Poll Shows Increase in Public Support for Health Reform

Every slide comes to an end, and the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll finds that public support for health reform increased from August to September.

As with previous polls, a majority of American's continue to support health reform, with 57 percent of respondents saying it is more important than ever to address the issue -- a 4 point increase from August's survey. The percentage who said their family will be better off also increased six points (42 percent vs. 36 percent in August), as did the share of those who think the country will be better off if health reform passes (up eight points from up eight from 45 percent in August to 53 percent).

Democratic support for reform remains steadily high (77 percent favor tackling reform now), and the shift in polling reflects a softening in opposition from Republicans and independents. The percent of respondents who felt they would be worse off if reform past fell by 12 points from August to September for Republicans and by 10 points among independents.



In terms of policy, a majority of Americans continue to support proposals to expand coverage such as an individual mandate (68 percent), an employer mandate (67 percent) and an expansion of such  programs as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (82 percent).

As with the July tracking poll, the latest survey tests the persuasiveness of arguments for and against reform. (See charts below)





The poll also takes a closer look at the media's role in shaping the health reform debate. Fifty percent of respondents says the focus of media coverage has "has been mostly about politics and controversies." In his latest essay,  Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman writes: "Only about a quarter of the public can say that they have figured out how health reform will affect them or their families and almost half say they are simply confused." He goes on to explain the challenges of the media's role in health reform:

The focus on death panels, abortion, and the threat of rationing and a supposed government takeover of the health system also made people more anxious, even when careful attention was devoted to both sides of the claims being made. It was the health reform equivalent of the old adage about sensationalism and local TV news: "if it bleeds it leads." The biggest losers were the average citizens activated by the debate who attended the town halls because they wanted to learn or be heard; their views got much less attention. Not enough attention was paid to who was orchestrating the meetings or, since the point was to attract coverage, whether these were real news at all. Too many media organizations, particularly on cable TV and local news where town halls were held, followed staged events designed to attract their coverage or chose on their own to put more juicy stories on air about angry town halls and symbolic side issues. According to one study, cable TV and radio were seven times more likely to cover angry town halls and polarizing issues than major newspapers.

Extensive coverage of the public option, a threshold issue for the left, was more legitimate because the public option is an important issue, but it was disproportionately covered because of its larger ideological symbolism to the right and the left. Excessive coverage of the public option diverted attention from the insurance market reforms and coverage expansions and subsidies, which are the elements of the legislation that will provide the most immediate and tangible help to people. As a result, the critical issue of affordability is only now belatedly emerging. I watched a long segment of Larry King Live devoted to health reform in which Elizabeth Edwards and Tommy Thompson debated the public option as if it was the only issue in health reform. As a result the discussion became entirely about whether health reform was or was not a government takeover of the health care system. [...]

How the media covers health reform as the debate moves into the final stages will be critical in determining whether the public's final judgments are based on a real understanding of how the proposed plan will affect them and the country or based instead on hot button side issues and public relations tactics used by political operatives to lure media coverage. The media can't wave a magic wand and change how politics works today, but it is the one great balancer in the system and when it becomes part of the political process and no longer stands apart from it we lose a lot.