New polls needed

It has been claimed that 75% of people support a public health care plan over any alternative, including the creation of co-ops. The general implication seems to be that Congress should not be looking at other options due to the will of the majority. Further exploration of the co-op plan compromise is often dismissed as caving in to business interests, and those who support the co-op plan (or even further discussion of the plan) are sometimes regarded as medical industry stooges.

Here’s an especially shrill example from the Huffington Post: “There simply is no policy or political rationale to justify leaving a public plan option out of reform. Once that is made crystal clear, it will also be crystal clear the only reason to oppose it is sucking up to insurance and drug lobby campaign cash. Once that is obvious, it becomes much harder to resist the will of the people.”

Now, one doesn’t have to agree with my rationale – that the public plan seems fiscally unsustainable when we can’t even pay for Medicare in the long run, and that voluntary democratic systems like co-ops are the ideal way to handle difficult social and economic issues. But to deny its existence is obviously false, and it seems like an attempt to silence opposition.

In any case, it is far from clear how many people would still support a public plan after having the co-op concept explained to them. Many, certainly. Most, perhaps. All? Very unlikely.

To see how obsolete these polls are, let’s look at the questions:

The NBC/WSJ poll only gives two options. Question 34a essentially asks whether a “public plan” should be offered alongside a “private plan.” This is the only survey question where a number like 75% support appears (when the top two categories are added together into an aggregate “important” rating, based on 41% “extremely” and 35% “quite”).

The NYT/CBS poll is about the same. Question 68 asks whether respondents favor or oppose a “government administered health insurance plan” – compared to Medicare. This question got a 72% favorable rating, which can be considered roughly similar results for a roughly similar question.

From these data, we can safely conclude that somewhere around three out of four would prefer a public plan over the status quo, then and probably now. However, there are problems with how these polls are being used to attack the co-op plan.

The first problem is that co-ops were not even mentioned in the poll. These polls say nothing at all about public opinion on co-ops, or even on some generalized compromise proposal.

The second problem is that the co-op option essentially didn’t exist when the polls were taken (June 12-16). Conrad had floated the idea just before the surveys started, but it was a minor news story at the time, and the skeletal draft proposal was only leaked a couple of days after the surveys closed. So few if any people would have been aware of any compromise possibilities to the point that they might have had doubts that the public plan is the best solution to the status quo. Most people are unaware of the adaptability of cooperative business models, and that this might be a good alternative to a public plan.

An imperfect but useful analogy might be a hypothetical poll about Iran regarding whether the U.S. should invade or establish diplomatic relations, conducted just before the election. It was already limited by only providing two choices. Worse, events since then have greatly complicated the options while also obscuring the future conditions on which a decision must be made.

When we consider the huge uncertainties around the latest compromise proposal (including confusion over whether it is a co-op plan or public plan), it should be clear that  these polls do not say anything conclusive about how the public would judge a co-op plan today. We can certainly speculate how a multi-choice question might be answered (for example, I guess that the public plan would win a new poll, but by a modest plurality). But before we make any firm claims about what people actually believe about the co-op plan, we need to ask.

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