Healthcare poll reveals GOP divide

There is a dangerous gap between the opinions of Republicans in Congress and Republican followers when it comes to healthcare. That’s the unavoidable takeaway from reading the most recent New York Times polling.

The Times headline — “In Poll, Wide Support for Government-Run Health” — made me cringe. It turns out that the headline writer may not have really understood the questions or the results. The poll asked about the government “offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans.” So, to be sure, the poll was not measuring opinions toward a single-payer, government-run healthcare takeover as much as the headline suggests.

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But Republicans in Congress should take note that a slim majority of the Republicans caught in this survey back the concept of a government-run health insurance option. And these are not just any Republicans. They are the hard-core remnant, the left-behind 24 percent in this poll that still salute the elephant flag. All those too weak and lame to stand up to the abuse of being a Republican these days have abandoned ship for the more hospitable climes of independent or Democrat identity. So when these fittest-of-the-fit diehard GOP survivors say they want the government-run option, D.C. Republican insiders should pay attention.

Some Republicans and healthcare lobbyists will, predictably, label the poll results a hoax and trot out alternative polls that make government-run healthcare seem like the plague. Like the headline writer, though, they will be missing important points about this poll and its central question. There are key concepts in this poll that are worth the time and attention of Republican strategists. The core concept is to “offer” Americans another choice, “like Medicare,” that will “compete” with private plans. Let’s examine why this works for so many Republicans.

First, Republicans love freedom and liberty. For those principles to flourish there must be choices. The Times plan simply offers us another choice or option, thereby increasing our freedom. The Times’ plan is the essence of Republican and conservative ideology because it increases competition in the marketplace. The fact that a majority of Republicans in the hinterlands let the concept of increased competition trump the bogeyman of “government-administered health insurance” should send a message to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

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The freedom issue arises in another way for Republicans. The current healthcare system imprisons Republican workers and entrepreneurs. Republicans are forced to hang on to jobs they hate, working for bosses they abhor, just to maintain their health benefits. Republicans, traditionally the engines of entrepreneurship, are prevented from leaving jobs to start new companies because they may not be able to get affordable healthcare plans for their families and a few startup employees. Because family comes first for most Republicans, this is a big deal.

The other interesting angle here is mentioning that this government-administered plan is to be “like Medicare.” While Republican policymakers look at Medicare in one way (bloated, corrupt, headed for bankruptcy), Republican followers likely see it as better or no worse than private health insurance. Ask yourself, “Do I hear more complaints lately about Medicare or private insurance plans?” For me, it’s the latter. Republicans skew old these days. Most Republicans are on Medicare or have senior parents on Medicare. They know the product and it doesn’t scare them. So ask a 55-year-old self-employed Republican small-business owner whether he’d like guaranteed access to Medicare and he’ll probably jump at the prospect.

Now I understand that this is all very murky. The Times hasn’t published a rate plan for its government-administered health plan. And that might be a deal-killer. Furthermore, freedom lovers have to be concerned about increasing government intervention in healthcare. But Republicans ought to keep an open mind.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.