Dems’ healthcare idea not ‘settled in the public mind’

In these pages last week, the respected Democratic pollster Mark Mellman claimed that public opinion on a public option, a possible government-run health insurance plan, was “settled in the public mind” (column, July 22). On the contrary, this is precisely the kind of proposal — complex, complicated, with multiple unintended consequences — on which public opinion evolves as voters learn more about the proposal and its implications. When it comes to implementing a public option, voter sentiment is very much up in the air.

Mr. Mellman criticized Resurgent Republic for asking voters which of these two statements they agree with:

• “Congressman A says Americans need a public health insurance plan administered by the federal government to expand choices and control costs by competing with private health insurance companies.”

• “Congressman B says a government-run health insurance plan will use taxpayer subsidies to undercut private insurance rates, and force private companies out of business, resulting in everyone going into a government-run plan.”

Mr. Mellman said that Congressman B’s argument was “wildly inaccurate.” But that is precisely the argument being made by opponents of a public option. To keep premiums low for people who are now uninsured, premiums will need to be set below current market rates. That will create an incentive for people who now have private insurance to switch to the public plan. Moreover, it will create an enormous incentive for employers to lower their costs by switching employees to the public plan. And that will eventually drive private insurance companies out of business.

When presented this way, voters overall split evenly, with 47 percent backing Congressman A and 45 percent backing Congressman B. Democrats choose Congressman A by 71 percent to 23 percent and Republicans choose Congressman B by 67 percent to 28 percent. But the swing group of independents agrees with Congressman B by 51 percent to 37 percent. On this as well as many other fiscal and healthcare issues, independents look far more like Republicans than Democrats.

Survey results showing large majorities supporting government-run health insurance often present only one side of the argument. An excellent example is the question posed by The New York Times: “Would you favor or oppose the government’s offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans?”

Linking the new proposal to a popular program like Medicare, without an opposing argument as Resurgent Republic did, is guaranteed to generate large levels of support. Presenting both sides of the argument shows far more mixed results. And those results are likely to evolve as voters learn more and more about the implications and unintended consequences of instituting a public option.

Indeed, a Fox News poll taken July 21-22 demonstrates that evolution. To the question, “Do you favor or oppose the creation of a government-run health insurance plan that would compete in the marketplace against private insurance plans?” 44 percent were in favor and 48 percent opposed.

Pubic opinion on this issue is anything but “settled.” If anything, it may be settling against.